UND offense now packs a punch
GRAND FORKS, N.D.--A year ago, the University of North Dakota football program's offensive representatives at the 2015 Media Day were two linemen and a tight end.
GRAND FORKS, N.D.-A year ago, the University of North Dakota football program's offensive representatives at the 2015 Media Day were two linemen and a tight end.
There was no quarterback, running back or wide receiver.
It must have been a national rarity, and it definitely was a reflection of the Fighting Hawks' lack of star power at the skill positions.
That's no longer the case as UND enters the 2016 season.
The Fighting Hawks now enter a highly anticipated season equipped with big-play threats in All-American running back John Santiago and wide receiver Clive Georges.
The excitement Thursday during the 2016 Media Day at the Alerus Center was the direction of the offense. It has come a long way during the Bubba Schweigert Era.
As UND's offensive transitioned from Schweigert's first season as head coach (2014) to the second season (2015), the offense evolved into producing more explosive plays.
In 2014, UND's offense registered 17 plays (four rushing, 13 passing) of 25 yards or more. In 2015, UND had 30 plays (19 rushing, 11 passing) of 25 yards or more.
The leader of the offense, quarterback Keaton Studsrud, has been at the helm for most of the Schweigert Era.
As a true freshman, a string of injuries led to Studsrud's redshirt being pulled. The rookie was thrust into the starting role down the stretch in 2014, experiencing ups and downs early in his time on campus.
By 2015, UND's trust level with Studsrud increased. He went 7-2 and completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,262 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Studsrud's evolution has mirrored the offensive unit's progression.
"My whole freshman season was a learning process," Studsrud said. "We made a big jump from my freshman year to my sophomore year. Guys have adopted the new offense really well and developed a new mentality that we'll be smart, tough and physical. Coach (Schweigert) has done a great job and frankly flipped the program right around."
UND didn't have much speed on offense in 2014 when Schweigert took over. As the Fighting Hawks began a philosophical overhaul, UND didn't find a big-play threat until senior running back Jer Garman emerged down the stretch.
"Big-play guys change a lot of things and that was missing in 2014," UND offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph said. "We were 3 yards and a cloud of dust until late in the year when Jer came on. In 2014, week by week, we were looking for our offensive line to buy in and understand where this thing was heading and what role they played."
UND tight end Luke Mathewson remembers a 42-10 loss to San Jose State to open the Schweigert Era in California in 2014.
"The scoreboard looked like we got killed," Mathewson said. "But I remember thinking, 'Man, I'm really excited for this. We're moving in the right direction. Once we get this going, it's going to be exciting.'
"We just needed the right players."
Those right players began to emerge in 2015. After first being expected to contribute at wide receiver prior to fall camp, Santiago was moved to running back as the season drew closer and took off in the FBS, season-opening win over Wyoming. He then ran for at least 100 yards in every conference game.
Georges, a transfer from Arizona, missed five games with an injury but showed his explosive nature down the stretch. In UND's season-ending blowout win over Cal Poly, Georges caught five passes for 141 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown.
Santiago and Georges should have plenty of help in 2016, too. UND's running back group also returns physical sophomore Brady Oliveira (60 carries, 348 yards), Wyoming transfer Oscar Nevermann and redshirt freshman Austin Gordon.
At wide receiver, UND added Texas State transfer Demun Mercer and returns steady sophomore Luke Stanley (26 catches, 312 yards, five touchdowns as a freshman).
"Our backfield is loaded," Studsrud said. "We have lots of explosive players. I think people will be surprised."