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Key to SDSU success? Commitment
Team creating ‘black shirt’ reward to renew fire; SDSU has eight starters back on offense
The South Dakota State football program has long fashioned itself as a hard-working, blue-collar outfit. But this season, the follow-up to a disappointing 5-6 campaign, the Jackrabbits are further stripping things down, getting rid of the collars all together.
T-shirts. That’s the article of clothing players and coaches hope embodies 2011.
Last May, the 17 seniors - who have experienced the high of a playoff berth and the low of the program’s worst season in a decade - came together and created an incentive program, a way to rekindle the commitment they felt was lacking the year before. They’d be on the lookout for maximum effort come fall camp, awarding to the obviously invested players black T-shirts - trophies, of sorts - that read “We’re all in … are you?”
What’s more, the seniors and coach John Stiegelmeier can’t earn shirts until everyone else has. Gimmick or not, it’s been the focus of fall camp inside the program, overshadowing any specific position battles or personnel questions.
“It really holds us accountable, as well,” senior safety Anthony Wise said, “to make sure everybody else is buying in.”
Of course, attitude alone won’t be enough to get SDSU into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the second time in three years - there has to be some ability. And in that regard, this team likely isn’t as individually talented as the last two, which produced a total of nine NFL training camp attendees. No, if it succeeds it will do so collectively.
Offensively, the Jacks will build around an offensive line that boasts four returning starters from a group that allowed just six sacks last season. And of the 13 linemen listed on the depth chart, only one is a senior.
“We’re going to line up and put those big butts together and knock people off the line of scrimmage,” Stiegelmeier said.
Junior Tyrel Kool figures to get the bulk of the carries behind them, the class of a running back crop that had a total of 24 career attempts. Departed senior Kyle Minett, second in career rushing yards at SDSU and a Walter Payton Award nominee, seemingly had that many touches per game over the past three seasons.
The 5-foot-9 Kool returns to his natural position after leading the team in catches last year. To do so, he reacquired the 15 pounds that he had lost, a tactic to boost his durability.
As for the remaining receivers, sophomore Brandon Hubert and junior Aaron Rollin finished 2-3 on the team in catches in 2010. They’re the most proven, but hardly the only options. Sophomore speedster Trevor Tiefenthaler has stood out in fall camp, Dale Moss and Jeff Fish figure to contribute after initially playing basketball and baseball, respectively, and coaches are high on redshirt freshmen Dom Wright and Jason Schneider.
And running the show? Well, it looks to be junior Thomas O’Brien, the quarterback of record each of the past two seasons. But he’ll be on a shorter leash with prized recruit redshirt freshman Austin Sumner making strides. O’Brien regressed in 2010 in terms of touchdowns, interceptions, completion percentage and efficiency from his freshman year.
“Thomas O’Brien needs to play better than he did last year,” Stiegelmeier said. “He needs to make better decisions.”
The defense will feed off of a deep and experienced group of linebackers, led by senior Mike Lien - the only SDSU player named to the preseason all-Missouri Valley Football Conference team. They’ll be charged with making good on two points of emphasis - force more turnovers and create more of a pass rush.
Beyond that, the front four (DE Jake Steffen, DE Zach Bowers, DT Andy Mink, DT Chase Douglas) plus three defensive backs (SS Anthony Wise, CB Winston Wright, CB Darryl Jackson) are solid and boast previous starting experience. But there are only four other corners on the roster and all are new to the program. It’s a similar story at defensive tackle in terms of reserves - and the Jacks struggled to stop the run last season.
Special teams, too, are still sorting things out as kicker Kyle Harris is coming off a subpar year and redshirt freshman Ethan Sawyer is battling newcomer Jason Schlautman - the starter at Nebraska-Omaha the past three seasons - to replace four-year starting punter Dean Priddy.
It’ll all have to come together in a hurry - not much time to earn those shirts. SDSU plays three in a row on the road after the Sept. 3 opener against Southern Utah and its first five foes all finished above .500 last season.
Stiegelmeier said he’ll know by the end of that stretch if the Jacks are in black, so to speak.
“We have guys that have been waiting in the wings behind some great players - they can play,” Steffen said. “We have all the confidence in the world in the guys we have. Mentally - that’s the biggest thing we’re working on.”
by Terry Vandrovec, Argus Leader