Hawks lost a lot, but don’t need to rebuildIn 36 seasons as the Dickinson State football team’s head coach, there isn’t much Hank Biesiot hasn’t seen.
By: Dustin Monke, The Dickinson Press
In 36 seasons as the Dickinson State football team’s head coach, there isn’t much Hank Biesiot hasn’t seen.
But he knows replacing 14 starters, including two NAIA All-America selections and a return specialist who rewrote the Blue Hawks’ record books, is going to be a challenge.
“I don’t know if you call ‘em growing pains, but they’re going to be some blips there,” Biesiot said.
Nonetheless, the Blue Hawks have a solid base to build on — even if there’s a few gaping holes to fill — as they chase their fourth consecutive championship in the much smaller Dakota Athletic Conference.
DSU returns four all-conference selections and several players who either started last season or saw valuable playing time.
Seven players who started at least a few games last season return on offense. The defense brings back five with starting experience, but only two of them were full-time starters.
Gone are cornerback Derion Williams, tight end Derek Pauley, quarterback Cody Holland and linebackers Bodie Tobin and Jason Kraft.
“We lost some outstanding individual talent, playmakers who make games easier,” Biesiot said. “We’re still looking for some of that. It’s a search. It’s hard to replace several of the guys we lost.”
Despite needing to replace more than half of their full-time starters, the Blue Hawks enter the season ranked No. 7 in the NAIA preseason coaches’ poll. The ranking, however, is based almost entirely on past successes and has very little to do with the current team.
To make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, the Blue Hawks will likely need to finish that high in the poll, too.
With the DAC down to four teams — DSU, Jamestown College, Mayville State and Valley City State — the league champion doesn’t have a automatic postseason bid and will need to finish as one of the higher-ranked at-large teams to reach the national playoffs.
And DSU’s schedule isn’t exactly easy.
The Blue Hawks play their three conference opponents twice, at home and on the road. They open the season on the road Saturday against future Frontier Conference opponent Rocky Mountain College and visit Concordia College the following week. DSU’s home opener is Sept. 10 against Valley City State.
However, the most challenging game will no doubt be on Oct. 8, when the Blue Hawks host No. 1-ranked defending national champion Carroll College, another future Frontier foe. DSU ends it season at home against former DAC opponent South Dakota Mines on Nov. 5.
Though the Blue Hawks have compiled a 23-8 record over the past three seasons, those teams were built around many players who are now gone.
But Biesiot isn’t discouraged at all.
“We’ve got some guys capable of stepping up and surprising some people, too,” Biesiot said.
Offense has few holes
Junior quarterback Dave Velasquez is one of those players Biesiot and his staff believe can step up into a crucial role this season.
However, in two seasons as a backup to Holland, Velasquez is 8 of 16 with 63 yards passing, two interceptions and no touchdowns.
At 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, Velasquez has the build of a pocket passer. He has, however, showcased his skills carrying the ball. In two games last season, Velasquez rushed for 57 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries.
However, airing the ball out to receivers Tanner Leak and Jimmy Smith is something Biesiot is expecting from Velasquez this season.
“I always liked the way he stood in the pocket and threw the ball,” Biesiot said. “Now it’s just a matter of him and his receivers getting some timing, or semblance of timing. He’s been confident. He’s playing like it is his turn. Right now he’s out front and he’s doing his job.”
Getting Velasquez in a rhythm would go a long way since DSU returns a majority of its offense.
Leak, a junior, was a second team all-DAC selection last season after leading the team with 36 receptions for 656 yards and two touchdowns. Smith, a sophomore who started last season, had 20 receptions for 379 yards and three TDs.
Leading rusher Brennan Haughian and starting senior fullback Tyler Grosz are also back. Haughian rushed for 374 yards and eight touchdowns last season as a freshman. Throw in transfer tailback Jordan Scott and DSU’s offense has a strong base to build upon.
Scott is a 5-11, 205-pound senior who spent last season at NCAA Division II California (Pa.) University. He was a high school standout in Phoenix and was recruited by NCAA Division I FCS school Idaho State after spending two seasons at Glendale (Ariz.) Junior College. An Achilles’ tendon injury kept him from ever playing at Idaho State.
“He’s going to be good for us, we think,” Biesiot said. “He’s looked good. I don’t know how durable he is. If he’s real durable, he’s going to get a lot of carries, but we don’t know.”
Long-time offensive line coach Pete Leno is gone and has been replaced by former DSU player Ryan Gatch, who inherited an experienced group with one caveat: there isn’t one senior on the line.
That might not matter though. Junior Ry O’Connor enters his third season starting at left guard, juniors Carl Dynesson and Kyle Enebo are back on the right side and the two-man center platoon of Doug Staley and Jerome Hoffman enter their junior years.
Velasquez, for one, is excited about the Blue Hawks’ experience up front.
“It helps a lot. The line is where it starts,” he said. “They’ve all had some serious time.”
Yet, one question remains. Who is going to replace All-America tight end Derek Pauley?
Junior Nate Zachmann, who saw the most time last season, sophomore Brock Overbo and junior transfer Steve Christensen, a 6-8, 241-pound former NCAA Division I basketball player, all expect to see time at the position.
“We’re kind of looking at a committee there right now,” Biesiot said. “We’ve maybe got to play a couple of different tight end sets. We’ve got four or five guys there who are working hard.”
Veterans will help defense
Finding replacements on DSU’s offense looks easy when compared to its defense, especially when the group’s most experienced player is surrounded by inexperience in his part of the field.
Senior safety Sean Russell, who led the Blue Hawks with 78 total tackles and intercepted three passes last season, is the team’s only starter back in the secondary.
“You’re looking for three-fourths of a unit that is real important to a football team,” Biesiot said.
Juniors Mike Fisher and Nolan Schwartz, sophomore Tyler Lalim and redshirt freshmen Bo Brooks and David Stewart are all competing for starting spots and inevitable playing time, Biesiot said.
Russell is confident the unit will be OK.
“It’s not something where we’re going to have to find someone. We have the people,” Russell said. “We have to, I guess, tone some skills. But for the actual positions, we have a good core there and if we need someone to step up, we have more people coming in.”
Up front, the Blue Hawks didn’t exactly lose everyone. But they lost enough.
Junior Heath Hafner is back at a defensive tackle position and will be joined by sophomore Colton Hill, juniors Cameron Hughes and Stephen Spitulski, third-year freshman Sam Herauf and junior transfer Ty Campbell.
Herauf, a Dickinson High School graduate, is coming off a reconstructive knee surgery that sidelined him for all but one game last season.
“We do have some strength up front, or some size,” Biesiot said. “Down the road, we’re going to have good depth. We can go six, seven guys up there, which is important when you want to keep fresh guys in for the pass rush.”
Linebacker is one spot where the Blue Hawks return quite a bit of depth.
Seniors Jerel Hafner, Tyler Schmidkunz are returning starters and senior Nic Nicastro, juniors Zach McCoy, Jay Grosz and Matt Seibert have all either started or played valuable minutes throughout their careers.
Hafner, a 6-3, 230-pound outside linebacker who was second team all-DAC selection last season, is confident that past two seasons has helped establish depth throughout the defense.
“I think we’ve got a lot of holes to fill, but I really think that we have just as good of talent, if not better, coming back this year,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, but it’s all going to depend on how we play together. We can do some real good things with our guys coming back.”
Special teams a mixed bag
Special teams presents a few highs and lows for Biesiot and his staff.
DSU returns its first team all-DAC punter in Russell and kicker Tury Escobedo, who was named a Victory Sports Network All-America last season.
It also lost a record-breaking return man in Williams and a four-year starting long snapper in Luke Leno. Leak, Smith, Scott and receiver Presley Straub are all working on replacing Williams and Dakota Holland as return men.
“That’s a huge thing,” Biesiot said. “I don’t think we lost a fumble back there and we had some big plays, so that is big.”