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Football in July: Media spotlight to shine on Big Sky Conference

FNS Photo by Eric Hylden University of North Dakota wide receiver Greg Hardin returned this kickoff for a touchdown in the first half against Southern Utah on Nov. 3 in Grand Forks.

PARK CITY, Utah -- University of North Dakota senior Greg Hardin has established himself as one of top receivers and kick returners in the Big Sky Conference.

He has another goal this season: "We're trying to establish ourselves as one of the power teams in the conference," said Hardin.

Hardin and players from the league's other 12 teams were in the spotlight Monday during the Big Sky's annual football media kickoff event.

It was a day for questions, preseason polls and all-conference teams as the 50th season of Big Sky football is just over a month away.

Hardin was the only player to be honored twice in the Big Sky preseason rankings. The senior from Bellevue, Neb., was named to the league's preseason all-conference team both as a wide receiver and kick returner.

Hardin finished with 65 catches for 1,145 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, including a Big Sky and UND single-game record 333 yards against Montana.

As a kick returner, Hardin averaged a league-best 31.6 yards, even though he never returned kicks before last season.

The top preseason honors, however, went to Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee and Montana linebacker Jordan Tripp.

McGhee is the league's preseason offensive player of the year while Tripp is the Big Sky preseason defensive player of the year.

And Montana State also was the preseason pick to win the Big Sky in a poll of media and coaches.

McGhee, however, downplayed the honor.

"We understand the target is on our back," said McGhee, who is closing in on 10,000 passing yards for his career. "There is so much competition in the Big Sky. The preseason rankings don't really matter. They're irrelevant if you ask me because no one has played a game yet. The freshmen coming in haven't been seen. And there will be surprises like there are every year from guys who haven't gotten the opportunity to play because of the guys ahead of them.

"We don't put much stock into the preseason rankings, but we do appreciate the acknowledgement."

Tripp, who registered 95 total tackles last year, said the focus in Missoula this year is on turning around the disappointment from last year's 5-6 season.

The Griz, a perennial national FCS power, had a surprising down year.

"Our focus is to control what we can control," Tripp said. "That chapter (last year) is done."

UND picked seventh

It came as no surprise that Montana State was picked to win the league in a preseason poll of media and coaches.

The Bobcats have shared three straight Big Sky titles. Montana State also has advanced to the FCS quarterfinals each of the past two seasons, losing to national runner-up Sam Houston State both times.

UND, which will begin its second season in the Big Sky, was picked to finish seventh by both the media and coaches.

UND finished 3-5 in the league last season and 5-6 overall.

Notes and quotes

Tripp remembers well what Hardin did to his Grizzlies last season at the Alerus Center. "That man across the room (Hardin) went off on us for 333 yards," he said. "It was a wild game and a fun atmosphere to play in. They picked on the back half of our defense quite a bit. Actually, a lot."

Montana will play at UND again this season as well as in 2014. That will make three straight trips to UND for the Griz. This year's game, scheduled Sept. 14, will be a nonconference matchup. It's the back half of a home-and-home agreement the schools signed before UND joined the league. Montana associate athletic director for communications Dave Guffey said he can't remember a Montana team playing three straight road games against an opponent in his 36 years at the school.

Montana State will play at UND on Sept. 28. It will mark the first time in 30 years that MSU will have played in Grand Forks.

Northern Arizona placed six players on the league's preseason all-conference team, yet the Lumberjacks were picked to finish fifth in the Big Sky. No other Big Sky team had more than four selections to the team.