Mar. 9—GRAND FORKS — Spring ball is in full swing at the Pollard Center for the UND football team, so Herald beat writer Tom Miller sat down to answer your questions on everything Fighting Hawks.
Q. They seem to be doing a good job of plugging the holes in the linebacker corps left by graduation. The defensive backs seem to be the biggest remaining question mark for our defense. What's your assessment of the defensive back/safety positions at this point and do you think that they're continuing to look outside to further shore up this area?
A. UND's going to need more help in the defensive backfield. Losing Caleb Nelson and Sam Robertson to transfers really hurt the depth at cornerback and losing Jordan Canady and Hayden Galvin to graduation leaves a void at safety.
C.J. Siegel is a lock for one corner spot. The other side could be Devin Hembry, a junior college addition from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Hembry has a nice frame and athleticism, but the juco transition is always a big one.
Clayton Bishop and Edmund Ocansey are two young corners who need to take some strides because they have potential, and they might be asked to play a big role in 2022.
At safety, there's a ton of question marks. Jayson Coley is sitting out spring ball as he recovers from an injury, so Kadon Kauppinen and Sammy Fort are getting a lot of run back there.
The stock is rising on Ethan Ball, a redshirt freshman from Saskatchewan, so he could be a name to watch at safety.
It's also going to be really interesting to see if Northern State transfer Hunter Hansen can make a difference at safety.
He comes in with some nice experience at the Division II level. He looks like a defensive end, though, so it'll be important for him to prove he can run around on the back end well enough.
I have to imagine defensive back is a major recruiting need here between spring ball and fall camp.
Q. Is there a quarterback competition or does Tommy Schuster have it secured?
A. At this point, Tommy Schuster has it secured.
That's partially because Quincy Vaughn hasn't practiced yet at spring ball as he deals with an illness.
Moorhead product Trey Feeney has flashes of Quarterback of the Future but not enough of them for me to say he's bumping Schuster.
I'd like to see Feeney continue to add strength here this offseason.
Q. The return to health of Garett Maag will obviously improve the outlook for our receiving corps. Who do you see as being potential surprises and/or taking the next step up this fall among our receivers? Do you see any of the freshman/transfer receivers potentially breaking into the 2-deep?
A. After Maag and Bo Belquist, there's a huge competition. Is it Jack Wright, Chrysten Cochran, Tyler Burian, Nick Kupfer, Marcus Preston?
As I've written a few times now in the Herald and in my online newsletter, which you should
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freshman Nate DeMontagnac has had a great spring. He's looking much more confident and making plays. He has work to do on technique and route-running, but he could help UND in 2022, no doubt.
As for the fall, I'll have my eyes glued to Caden Dennis of Liberty, Mo. It's no secret, this team needs a deep threat and Dennis' highlight film provides a ton of intrigue to that end.
Q. New guys that will start this year?
A. I think we have to start with this question on the offensive line. UND needs a new center with the graduation of Babak Ghadaksaz, one-year plug and play transfer.
At spring ball, UND is starting Danny Carroll at center. The coaches love Carroll so far, although he needs to add weight between now and the fall.
UND coaches would like to give Peyton Lotysz some run at center, but he remains sidelined. Injuries have really derailed his career at this point, but he'll be a name to watch if he can get back on the practice field.
To add some insurance for Carroll, UND is rolling guard Ben Christian in at center here and there.
Another new starter on the offensive line is expected to be North Dakota State transfer Seth Anderson, who's holding down one of the guard spots right now.
Northern State transfer Jake Oliphant and junior college transfer Brayden Bryant are both sidelined with injuries during this spring, so we haven't seen if they can jump Christian and Colin Lavell at guard.
Other new guys to possibly start off the top of my mind would be Isaiah Smith at running back, perhaps Aaron Cooper (Cal Poly graduate transfer) at outside linebacker and Ben McNaboe at defensive end.
McNaboe came to fall camp last year a little under-sized, although he's young. As the year went on, he developed into one of UND's best options on the defensive line. I see another nice jump from him in 2022.
Q. Why would UND extend a football head coach coming off a losing season (5-6)? Are the expectations for UND football that low? Or is this an attempt to help recruiting and/or are there contract details not yet reported that help better pay/retain UND's assistant coaches?
A. I've heard some frustrations from UND football fans on the Bubba Schweigert extension, and I understand the perception that the program feels to have hit a plateau of sorts.
I also think a reasonable counter-argument, though, is that UND is also a season and a half removed from winning the Missouri Valley Football Conference in its first season in the new league and advancing to the FCS quarterfinals, where it lost to FBS-bound James Madison on the road.
The 2021 fall was a step back from the spring, but playing one-score games against North Dakota State and on the road at South Dakota State might indicate this program isn't in a bad spot.
As far as whether this contract speaks to assistant pay, I haven't seen anything on that and I've read both the original contract and the addendum.
If I had to guess, I'd say this contract timing is mostly about giving the coaching staff its full recruiting punch to kids to say they'll be around through their full college careers.
Q. What make, model and year automobile does this year's team most remind you of. For reference, I'm a 2018 Volvo V90 — fairly impractical, pretentious but also safe. Lots of miles left, but used a bit.
A. Some readers are weird. But I'll bite. It's a 2021 Chevy Equinox. It's solid and better than the last thing you drove, but it maybe doesn't get the people coming around at the car show or anything.
Q. How is the offensive line looking?
A. That's a tough one because half of them aren't practicing.
On the positive side, Danny Carroll is coming along at center and should be an improvement from the fall if he can add a little more weight.
In addition, North Dakota State transfer Seth Anderson looks to be a potential starter at guard. There was a lot of buzz from Fargo that he couldn't put on weight but Anderson looks to me to be 6-foot-4 and pushing 290, so I don't see that as a worry.
On the negative, you have two interesting pieces — Northern State transfer Jake Oliphant and junior college transfer Brayden Bryant. Neither of those two are practicing yet with injuries, and you'd really like to know more there to see if they can be improvements from 2021.
In addition to those two, UND would've loved to see more of Sam Hagen at tackle, Andrew Fenton at guard and Peyton Lotysz at center. Those three are all sidelined with injuries right now.
Q. UND lost a lot of long-time players on the defensive side of the ball through graduation and transfers, is there concern for inexperience and/or depth at every position on the defense?
A. From what I see, UND's front seven has a good chance to make up for the losses. Jaelen Johnson, Jalen Morrison and Ben McNaboe (Minnesota Gophers transfer) are a strong starting three on the defensive side, while Luke Lennon, Elijah Beach and Chandon Pierre are good next options.
At outside linebacker, it's going to be hard to replace Jaxson Turner. But Josh Navratil, Cal Poly graduate transfer Aaron Cooper, safety-turned-linebacker Matt Koshiol and Teddy Mullin are a nice mix.
At inside linebacker, UND returns Devon Krzanowski and Caden White with experience and the staff likes the youth of Wyatt Pedigo and Kason Kelley. Malachi McNeal is a young player starting to develop the right frame to play inside, too.
The concern is at defensive back. UND needs to find a corner to go with C.J. Siegel. Maybe that's Devin Hembry, but he has a junior college-to-Division I transition to go through for a bit still.
Safety is a total wildcard. UND has some options but I don't see any stars, and it's probably the best place to start when searching the transfer portal.