VERMILLION, S.D. | By his own admission, each of Bob Nielson’s 25 seasons as a head collegiate football coach have been different.
“The analogy that I came up with about that is my dad, who’s in his 80s now, farmed for 60 years and he did the same thing,” said the second-year University of South Dakota coach. “He planted, stuff grew and then he harvested at the end. I will say this, I think this spring we planted better, our guys had great offseasons in January and February and spring practice was vastly different. We were not just teaching stuff for the first time, we were able to advance and move forward in a lot of areas.
“Summer provided our guys great opportunity to grow, we had over 90 percent of our roster that was here for the entire summer. Now the bottom line is, we’re in fall camp and have to get ready for the harvest, which starts on Sept. 2.”
Nielson’s first USD team finished 4-7, losing its last four games, all by close margins. Nielson has an overall coaching record of 190-87-1 and won two NCAA Division II national championships at Minnesota-Duluth.
“We all have the same goal and that’s to improve every day but be the best football team we can be Sept. 2 and be even better the next week,” Nielson said. “We have guys who truly believe we can accomplish a lot together. I think we’re a team that’s going to be improved in all areas.”
The Coyotes return nine starters on offense, including multi-talented quarterback Chris Streveler, last year’s Missouri Valley Football Conference Newcomer of the Year. The Minnesota transfer accounted for 2,770 yards and 31 touchdowns.
“When you have players like that at that position it bodes well, if you don’t have a good quarterback in this league, it’s going to be a long year,” Nielson said. “Not only with Chris but we feel like we have tremendous depth at that position. There aren’t many teams who can say they have two quarterbacks on their team that have won games in the Valley and we have that with Chris and Austin Simmons.”
The offensive line was a work in progress but three players return who have combined for around 50 starts. Nick Jensen, Tanner Anderson and Stetson Dagel are the returning starters.
Tight end is another deep position with seniors Aaron Ramsey and Josh Hale. And, the number of players at wide receiver who have caught passes gives the Coyotes the ability to utilize different formations and keep people fresh, which is key in Nielson’s up-tempo offense.
Seniors Brandt Van Roekel, Riley Donovan and Alonge Brooks provide ample experience along with sophomore Dakarai Allen. Slot receivers Shamar Jackson, Trystn Ducker and Randy Baker are expected to make big strides from their freshman to sophomore seasons.
Junior Mike Fredrick (358 yards) is the heir apparent to four-year regular Trevor Bouma at running back. Two more guys who were impressive in spring practice were Ben Klett and Ethan Falaniko, each in the 230-pound range.
The main focus on defense is being a better team against the run. Changes have been made to address that because, as Nielson says, if you can’t stop teams from running the football you’re not going to compete for a championship in the Valley.
Senior John Wessel is back at middle linebacker after missing much of last season because of an injury. Jim Litrenta is another veteran linebacker, while Alex Gray and Alex Coker saw extensive playing time. Ray Dixon is a graduate transfer from Minnesota who will also be part of the linebacker rotation.
Taylor Lambert, a senior from Dakota Valley High School who at 5-foot-10 and 245-pounds is a bit undersized for a Division I defensive lineman, has nonetheless proven his value in the past.
Jake Leohr played defensive tackle two years ago but moved to end last year and is back inside for his senior season. Nielson thinks ends Darin Greenfield (Sheldon, Iowa) and Kameron Cline have a chance to be among the best in the league. There will be some younger players, possibly even true freshmen, who will see action up front.
Anchoring the secondary are cornerbacks Adam Harris and Danny Rambo, another position that Nielson feels his team is as good as any in the MVFC. A highly-competitive group of around five players is engaged in a battle for playing time at safety that should be sorted out by the end of camp.
The biggest shoes to fill may be those of Miles Bergner, who excelled at both punting and kicking the last four seasons. Bergner was the leading punter in the nation at the FCS level.
Redshirt freshman Brady Schutt from Orange City, Iowa, punted in spring drills and is competing with true frosh Bryan Clements for the job. Three are battling for the kicker spot, including Vermillion junior Ethan James and Ryan Weese, who attended the University of Kansas and also played at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, Oklahoma State and Hawaii. True freshman Dominic Long was a two-time all-state kicker at Gothenburg, Nebraska.