Sioux bring back experience in defensive backfieldUniversity of North Dakota senior strong safety Joel Schwenzfeier is a four-year starter.
By: Tom Miller, Forum Communications Co.
GRAND FORKS — University of North Dakota senior strong safety Joel Schwenzfeier is a four-year starter.
Senior free safety Kris Ankenbauer has played in every game since seeing the field as a true freshman.
Junior cornerback Dominique Hawkins is entering his third season as a starter.
Clearly any troubles in the Sioux secondary this year won’t be due to lack of experience.
“We’ve all come up and played together,” said Schwenzfeier, who led the team with five interceptions last year. “We don’t have to say a lot. We can usually look at each other and know.”
The veteran defensive backfield has allowed the Sioux coaching staff to breeze through the basics during fall camp.
“It makes coaching much easier,” said UND co-defensive coordinator John Kelling, who is in charge of the secondary. “You’re able to focus on the details.”
The Sioux secondary will certainly play a key role as the program embarks on its third season of Division I.
UND’s pass defense has been challenged the past two seasons like never before as it encounters more spread offenses, which are apt to throw the ball more often than the Sioux saw in the North Central Conference and Division II.
In its Division II days, the Sioux surrendered on average more than 200 yards passing per game for a season only three times and never gave up more than 231 yards per game for a season.
But as the Sioux face tougher, quicker opponents, UND has given up an average of 267.5 passing yards per game in 2008 and 271.5 in 2009.
Schwenzfeier has seen the change first-hand and believes the Sioux are better equipped this year to handle the pass-oriented schemes.
“Teams have a lot more speed out there in Division I,” Schwenzfeier said. “There’s a lot less two tight-end and two running-back sets. It’s more out in space, sideline to sideline.
“It helps us as a defense now with our offense doing more of that too now. It’s a whole different story just preparing for it than actually seeing it.”
Schwenzfeier has been an important piece to the Sioux slowing down high-octane offenses, such as last year’s season-opening opponent Texas Tech. Schwenzfeier had three interceptions against the Red Raiders.
Schwenzfeier’s skills are also complemented well by those of Ankenbauer, Kelling said.
“(Kris) is more of the enforcer,” Kelling said. “You need one of those guys in a group. You need someone who, if a receiver is coming across the middle, can separate the receiver from the ball. It’s extremely important to have a good mixture of those kind of guys.”
Backing up Schwenzfeier and Ankenbauer will be Erik Mersereau and Justin Belotti.
“Justin has had a great fall, and I think he’s ready to step forward as a playmaker,” Kelling said.
Work in progress
Just as the starting safety positions are solidified, so is the left cornerback spot.
Hawkins, who led the Sioux in tackles last year, has held the position from his freshman year.
Hawkins, who coaches say possesses all the physical tools to be a solid corner, still is progressing in technique.
“He’s still learning,” Kelling said. “He keeps getting bigger and stronger and he’s always been fast. Now we just need him to take the correct angles, run when he’s supposed to and backpedal when he’s supposed to.”
The only starting secondary job up for grabs is at right corner. Kenny Watkins, who likely would have been the favorite to win the spot, is out for the first two weeks of the year for violating team rules.
That opens the door for a number of potential fill-ins. Junior Mitch Kudrna, a Dickinson High School graduate, may have the upper hand, while the Sioux will also take long looks at sophomore Ben Buchl and freshman Chavon Mackey.
Freshman Chris Hall, who had impressed coaches during spring ball, has been slowed by an injury during fall camp.
Kelling also noted true freshman Daryl Brown has made a good impression so far. “He’s going to be a good player,” Kelling said. “He brings a great attitude to practice every day. He refuses to give up or give in.”
Miller is a sports reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.