CHADRON, Neb. — March 18, 2019 — Old Man Winter’s big snow and blow last week delayed the start of spring football practice at Chadron State College, but the players removed several tons of snow from Elliott Field’s all-weather turf on Friday and the practices began Monday afternoon.
Head Coach Jay Long said there’s still plenty of time for the Eagles to get in all their practices before the spring semester ends. The NCAA allows teams to have 15 practices in 37-days once the drills kick off.
“I’m excited to get going,” Long said. “There are some things we need to do better this year. I hope we improve in every aspect every day we practice.”
The Eagles finished 7-3 last fall. They’ve added an 11th game for this fall. It will be against Texas Permian Basin on Oct. 19.
Long said about 100 players will participate in spring drills. They’ve been trying to get stronger and faster by lifting weights four days a week and running in the Nelson Physical Activity Center early in the mornings twice a week since about Feb. 1.
Offensively, Long said the skill positions will be the strength. Junior quarterback Dalton Holst returns after completing 375 of 721 passes for 4,940 yards and 36 touchdowns the past two seasons. Finding a backup for him is on the spring agenda.
While last fall’s leading rusher, Kevin Coy, who gained 962 yards and scored 15 touchdowns, has graduated, his primary backups, Stevann Brown and Elijah Myles have returned. They combined for 1,065 yards and seven TDs.
The receivers who caught all but seven of the passes last year are returning. They include junior Cole Thurness, who grabbed 46 tosses for 701 yards and seven TDs, along with seniors Jackson Dickerson, Tevon Wright and Brandon Fullerton, who combined for 99 receptions for 1,376 yards and 14 scores.
Another top-notch receiver is sophomore Chad Mikelson, who caught 10 passes in the Eagles’ final game in 2018.
The Eagles had the misfortune of losing one of their all-stars early in the first game last season when tight end Colt Foster of Hemingford sustained a knee injury. He’s still recovering, but his replacements, Matt Vargas and Baylor Hayes, proved they are capable and are back.
Long is quick to point out that despite the talent and experience available at the skill positions, the offense still has a big challenge. Three starters in last year’s offensive line, including all-conference standouts Travis Romsa and Jake Geil, have graduated.
In addition, Austin Rapp, the starting left guard as a redshirt freshman last fall, won’t have contact this spring because he’s recovering from an injury. That leaves only senior Jared Maciejczak returning from last year’s front five.
“Finding their replacements will be our biggest thing,” Long said. “We need to find the best five and decide where to play them. We’ve got 15 candidates. They’re a good group with good size and strength.”
Two players who will be juniors, Sam McKinley and Jake Norris, have a head start in the competition because they filled in for injured starters several games last fall. Most of the others are redshirt freshmen.
Long, who is the team’s offensive line coach as well as the head mentor, also has moved a couple of last year’s defensive linemen, Steve Shields and Marvin Williams, to the offensive side.
“We’re going to put together a bunch of different combinations and hope we get rid of most of our growing pains this spring,” Long added.
The defense lost just three of last year’s dozen or so busiest tacklers, but all three were standouts and the Eagles gave up 516 yards per game last season. Only the fact that the defense kept the opponents off the scoreboard 15 of the 20 times they reached the red zone saved the day.
Long said this year’s defense will be older and wiser and, like is planned in the offensive line, the coaches with strive to put together the best combinations.
The D line still has 20 candidates, led by returning starters Calder Forcella, Brendan Hopkins and Tayven Bray, a true freshman a year ago. Louis Smith and Denton Payne are others with considerable experience.
The team also has numerous linebacker candidates, led by feisty senior Tyler Lewis, who was second in tackles with 95, forced three fumbles and intercepted two passes last fall. While the leading tackler each of the past three years, Keenan Johnson, has graduated, Long said 2018 alternates such as Noah Kerchal, Buster Wilson and Zeke Zuhlke are being counted on to make in impact.
Travis Wilson, no relation to Buster, is another valuable defender. Last fall he participated in 48 tackles while playing both end and linebacker. During winter conditioning, he broke the Eagles’ squat record of 500 pounds that was set by All-American linebacker Kevin Homer in 1996.
The Eagles were forced to use several inexperience players in the secondary and gave up 323 yards a game through the air last fall. Hopes are high that lessons learned last year will carry over.
Long says senior DeAndre Barthwell is among the best cornerbacks in the conference. Fellow cornerback Demetrius McFadden also returns along with safetys Tyree Fryar, who participated in 89 tackles, and Malik Goss, who had 57 stops and returned both a fumble and an interception for touchdowns as a true freshman.
Others who gained experience last fall include Richard Harbor, Brendan Brehmer and Micah Scherbarth. Redshirt freshman Dylan Marsh, who made the travel squad in 2017 as a true freshman and played in seven games, is also back after sitting out 2018 with an injury.
“We’re in the business of developing players and that’s what we’ll emphasize again this spring,” Long said. “We’ll do our best to use all 15 practices to make that happen. We’ll try to get as many players as possible ready to help us this fall.”
The Eagles have two interim coordinators this spring. Logan Masters, who has been the receivers’ coach the past two years, is taking over the offense and Craig Jersild, who has been a full-time staff member at least a dozen years and has been the special teams and secondary mentor most of that time, will head up the defense.