CHADRON, Neb. — After going 7-3 and sharing third place in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference last season, the Chadron State College football team is hoping for even better things this season.
With 19 seniors returning, Head Coach Jay Long believes the Eagles will have outstanding leadership and stability. He also was impressed by the improvement many younger players made during spring practice and is counting on a major contribution from them.
The Eagles have some obvious strengths and a couple of areas that were still a work in progress when fall drills began. They were pegged for third in the 11-member Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference during the coaches’ preseason poll.
However, Long isn’t conceding that the Eagles can’t claim top honors in the league.
Offensively, the coach believes the Eagles can match any team in the conference at the skill positions, but the offensive line must be rebuilt after graduating three starters, including all-conference choices Jake Geil and Travis Romsa.
The defense lost only three starters from last fall, but the Eagles gave up more yards per game (516.0) than they gained, a year ago, and some of the returnees figure to be challenged for playing time.
With three new coordinators taking over, spring drills were particularly crucial for the Eagles.
After already being on the staff 13 years, much of it as both the secondary and special teams coach, Craig (Jersey) Jersild takes charge of the defense; Logan Masters, who was the wide receivers’ coach the previous two years, assumed control of the offense; and Clint Sasse, a former CSC defensive back, has assumed Jersild’s previous duties. In addition, coaching assistant Bryar DeSanti was promoted to fill Masters’ former dual role as assistant coach for wide receivers and athletics operations.
Jersild immediately switched the Eagles’ defense from a predominantly 4-3 front to a 5-3 and during the spring moved several players to new positions.
“We’re planning to play hard and pay attention to detail,” Jersild said. “If we do that, we’ll have a fighting chance.”
Masters installed a “run-pass” option and wants to open up the offense to take advantage of quarterback Dalton Holst’s strong arm and one of the most talented, experienced and deep corps of receivers in school history.
“We should be able to both run and throw the ball and plan to make use of the entire field,” Masters said.
Holst is a junior and has started the past two seasons. Each of the other nine teams in the RMAC had seniors at the controls last fall, so his experience should give the Eagles an advantage. Last fall, he completed 195 of 340 passes for 2,598 yards and 22 touchdowns.
The CSC passing game looks even more potent when it’s noted that all but six of Holst’s completions last fall were caught by players who are returning. The reception leaders include seniors Jackson Dickerson, Tevon Wright and Brandon Fullerton, who combined for 99 catches for 1,376 yards and 14 touchdowns, and junior Cole Thurness who paced the team with 46 receptions for 701 yards and seven TDs.
“We’ve got four good tight ends while most teams have only one or maybe two,” Masters said.
A pair of exciting running backs also return. Senior Stevann Brown averaged 7.6 yards a carry and sophomore Elijah Myles 6.0 a year ago. Speedy Priest Jennings also appears ready to play after missing the last two years because of injuries.
The Eagles will lack experience up front, but Long likes the line’s potential.
Only two starters return on the offensive line. One is Jared Maciejczak, an all-conference candidate and one of the seniors expected to supply exceptional leadership. The other is Austin Rapp, a sophomore who went into service the first game of his redshirt freshman season. While Rapp will enter fall camp recovering from injury, others high on the offensive line depth chart include Marvin Williams, a senior who played defense last season, junior lettermen Sam McKinley and Jake Norris and redshirt freshmen Michael DeCamillis, Juan Estrada and Trent Grizzle.
“They’re inexperienced, but we found out in the spring that we’ve got quite a few really capable young linemen,” Long said. “It will be fun to watch them develop.”
Junior college transfer Justin Calderon, from Long Island in New York, is already counted on by the coaches as a regular up front after arriving on campus just days ago. He played offensive tackle for Nassau Community College the past two years.
Jersild said the defense improved during the spring as more of the younger players got a firmer grip on their assignments.
“The more we learned the better we played,” Jersild said. “We’ll do lots more teaching before the season kicks off and hope we get everybody in the right position. I think we’ll have a pretty good first team but we’ll need to develop more depth.”
Returning regulars in the line include senior Calder Forcella, junior Brendan Hopkins and sophomore Tayven Bray. Sophomores Denton Payne, Alex Mai and Emmitt Rosentrater also will likely be in the rotation along with redshirt freshman Joel Carpenter, who appears to be a rising star.
Jersild believes linebacker will be a solid phase of the defense. The leaders include senior Tyler Lewis who has a knack for making things happen. During the past two years he’s participated in 156 tackles, swiped three passes, forced three fumbles and returned both a pick and a bobble for touchdowns.
Lewis will play alongside senior Travis Wilson, who took part in 48 tackles last season while playing both in the line and behind the line. Other linebackers expected to play include junior Zeke Zuhlke, sophomores Noah Kerchal and Bryant Wilson and redshirt freshman Joey Geil.
The coaches say DeAndre Barthwell, a three-year starter at cornerback, is so solid that the opponents seldom threw in his direction last fall. They also found a gem at safety in Malik Goss, who returned an interception 82 yards and a fumble 62 yards for touchdowns as a true freshman.
A big boost is anticipated from Dylan Marsh, who had a good spring after missing last fall because of injuries.
Seniors Tyree Fryar, Demetrius McFadden, Richard Harbor and Micah Scherbarth also return in the secondary and to help with special teams. Transfer Jeremiah Gutierrez, sophomore Brendan Brehmer and redshirt freshmen Ethan Zimmerman also were in the mix at the end of spring drills.
Senior placekicker Will Morgan is also back and may do double duty after two of his punts went out of bounds at the one-yard line in the spring game.