Blue Hawks begin football practice, search for RB
There was a chill in the air as temperatures hovered just above 60 and winds gusted upwards of 35 mph.
It was almost perfect Dickinson State football weather Wednesday afternoon at the Badlands Activities Center.
"It's a fired-up bunch of guys a little bit in shock because of this cold front that's kind of taken everybody off guard a little bit," DSU football coach Hank Biesiot said. "I think they're happy here and moving around."
Biesiot enters his 37th season needing just one victory to tie the NAIA record for most wins by a football coach.
Getting there may be easier said than done.
Coming off a disappointing 4-6 season -- only the third losing record in Biesiot's tenure -- DSU begins its first Frontier Conference season by hosting new league rival Rocky Mountain College at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1.
Before they get there though, the Blue Hawks have some work to do.
Though they return quarterback Dave Velasquez, plus everyone on the offensive line and at wide receiver, the team began practice Monday night with one major objective: figure out its running game.
"We're still trying to find an answer for our running back situation right now," said Biesiot, who at 254-102-1 is one win away from duplicating the legendary Frosty Westering's long-standing NAIA win's record.
The Blue Hawks are uncharacteristically thin at what is easily their offense's most critical position.
Brennan Haughian, who led the team in rushing with 975 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011, decided not to return for his junior year. Last year's seniors, Jordan Scott and Tyler Grosz, are gone. Ethan Albrecht, who was one of last season's most valued redshirts, is no longer at DSU.
To make matters worse, sophomore Riley Moore -- the projected starter who played last year as a true freshman -- is out at least two to three weeks after twisting his right knee shortly before the season was set to begin.
That leaves DSU a set of running backs who have little to no experience with the team.
Biesiot said the team will first look to senior Presley Straub.
There's just one hitch.
Despite being recruited as a running back, Straub hasn't played the position since his freshman season. And even then he didn't get many carries. In fact, he has only eight carries for 35 yards in his career.
"It's something I'm excited for," Straub said. "I came here as a running back and they kind of moved me here and there, to positions that needed to be filled. I'm just glad to be moving back to the position I came here for."
The Baker, Mont., native has spent much of the past two seasons playing receiver and defensive back and stepped in as a kick returner last year.
Straub didn't have a carry in 2011. But, he caught eight passes for 57 yards and a touchdown, led the team in kick returns with a 28.5-yard average and had a pair of punt returns. Defensively, he was 10th on the team in tackles with 26 and had an interception.
"He's been involved in a lot of things," Biesiot said. "We've probably stretched the guy a little too thin just trying to get on the field. Now he can settle into one position, which is something he deserves, and go from there. He's completely untested there, as well as the rest of our tailbacks."
Along with Straub, redshirt freshman Zach Sandau and transfers Myren Moore and Terrence Yelder are expected to get the bulk of the carries in preseason practices. Sophomore fullback Kyle Stanton, who played as a true freshman, is also getting quality reps.
Besides running back, every starter is back offensively.
Defensively, DSU is set to return nine players who started or played quality time last season.
Along with departed seniors Sean Russell (safety), Tyler Schmidkunz (inside linebacker), Jerel Hafner (outside linebacker), a handful of expected returners -- nose guard Heath Hafner, safety Jacob Erhardt and linebacker Ridgeley Kraft -- chose not to return this season.
Former all-Dakota Athletic Conference linebacker Zach McCoy had a season of eligibility remaining but ended his career early because of concussion-related injuries.
Despite having to negotiate some early curves on defense, senior linebacker Jay Grosz said DSU's upperclassmen are doing everything they can to instill a sense of urgency as the team prepares to enter the Frontier, arguably the most difficult league in the NAIA.
"No. 1, we've got to play more consistent each and every week," Grosz said. "There's going to be really good teams coming here and where we're going to. You've got to play good every single and you've got to score offensively and shut them down defensively. Playing consistently and stepping up to our abilities each and every week is going to be important in this conference."