After having what both the coaches and the players describe as an outstanding preseason, the Chadron State College football team will open its schedule Saturday at noon against the Fort Lewis Skyhawks in Durango, Colorado.
Both teams are hopeful of improving on last year’s records, when the Eagles finished at 3-8 and Fort Lewis at 4-7, and both played numerous close games.
Chadron State topped the Skyhawks 17-10 at home in last year’s opener, had a four-point victory at South Dakota Mines later in the season, and also lost games by one, two and four points. After visiting Chadron, Fort Lewis dropped another game by a touchdown and others by two, three and four points.
The Skyhawks also won once by five points and edged South Dakota Mines 53-52 in overtime, the week after the Eagles had nipped the Hardrockers 37-33.
In this year’s Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference coaches’ preseason poll, the Eagles were pegged for eighth and Fort Lewis ninth.
Chadron State head coach Jay Long said his team’s 15 seniors have provided outstanding leadership and there have been no injuries in practice that will cause any of the top players to miss the trip.
“We’ve had a really good preseason with both great effort and a great attitude,” Long said. “Everybody seems confident and excited about playing a game.”
Long said the team’s primary goal is to have maximum effort every game.
Redshirt freshman Dalton Holst of Gillette, Wyoming, will be the Eagles’ starting quarterback in the opener. He won the job after TD Stein, the starter the past two years and the No. 1 signal caller again coming out of spring practice, sustained a leg injury during the summer and has watched from the sidelines during the preseason.
Holst, who is 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, has been impressive. CSC Offensive Coordinator Chris Stein calls him “a skinny version of Matt Strand,” the quarterback who led the Eagles to an undefeated regular season as a senior in 2000 and was the Omaha World-Herald’s State College Athlete of the Year.
“I’m excited to see what he can do,” the coach said. “Sometimes he shows his age (youth), but he throws the ball well. We know he’s a good quarterback.”
The Eagles also will have two first-time starters in the offensive line and five sophomores in the rotation at receiver, but each of them also saw action a year ago.
Senior Derek Jackson and junior Kevin Coy will be sharing playing time at tailback for the third straight year. Sophomore Priest Jennings and redshirt freshman Brad Johnston are also due carries this season.
The Eagles’ defense features five seniors in the line, including rush end Collin Eisenman, a preseason all-RMAC choice, and four seniors in the secondary. Both inside linebackers also are returning starters.
The defense and special teams were primarily responsible for last year’s win over the Skyhawks. The first CSC touchdown came when Eisenman blocked a punt that linebacker Tyler Lewis pounced on, in the end zone. The second was set up by cornerback Steve Allen‘s interception and 20-yard return. Two plays later, TD Stein hit Matt Reader with a 24-yard pass in the end zone.
Fort Lewis had an unusual summer coaching change with Joe Morris, a former Skyhawks’ linebacker and the team’s defensive coordinator for five years, taking over the top job from veteran Ed Rifilato, who wanted time away to take care of his health, but stayed on to tutor the linebackers.
The Skyhawks are expected to have a “run-first” offense. They led the RMAC with a 267-yard rushing average last year. While Drake Griffin, who ran for 1,300 yards, has expended his eligibility, PJ Hall, a 5-foot-5 195-pound fireplug, returns after gaining 800 yards.
Another major threat is Bo Coleman, a junior who ran for 650 yards last fall to lead RMAC quarterbacks in rushing. He also completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,509 yards and 19 touchdowns, tying him for second place in the conference for TD tosses.
Chadron State Defensive Coordinator Jeff Larson said Coleman is “a runner who also can throw.”
“He uses the run to set up the passing game. He can hurt you both ways. They’re mostly ‘a grind it out team’ that tries to control the clock. Hopefully, our defense can get them off the field without giving up points.”
In order to continue last year’s success running the ball, however, the Skyhawks have a chasm to fill on the offensive line, where they return noone who began last year’s opener in Chadron. Only a couple of linemen, Christian Ramos and Caleb Barham, have four starts between them. Ramos, who is expected to start at left tackle on Saturday, is roughly the same size as both of the Eagles’ starting ends, at 6-4, 245 pounds.
Just three of the Skyhawks’ 10 busiest tacklers last fall have returned. The leaders include senior end OJ Thompson, who made 12.5 tackles for minus yardage a year ago and is a 2017 All-RMAC preseason choice.