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5 storylines to watch as UND football opens fall camp

UND football coach Bubba Schweigertr. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

With expectations at an all-time high in the Division I era, the UND football team will report to fall camp Tuesday.

Fighting Hawks coach Bubba Schweigert will conduct his first practice of fall camp on Thursday morning at Memorial Stadium.

As the 2017 season gets underway, here's a look at the top five storylines to watch as fall camp begins:

1. How will UND's offense use All-American John Santiago?

After two standout seasons in Grand Forks, John Santiago enters his junior season as a key weapon in UND offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph's offense.

Santiago has proven his value at running back, but the Fighting Hawks are full of talent in the backfield with all-Big Sky Conference pick Brady Oliveira, Minnesota Gophers transfer James Johannesson and Austin Gordon (7.4 yards per carry in 2016).

The stacked backfield could open the door for Santiago to be utilized more in the slot. UND has dabbled in using Santiago split out wide in the past, but the speedy former wide receiver might play a bigger role in the jet sweep game this season.

2. How does UND handle the injury to cornerback Deion Harris?

Strangely enough, the UND football team suffered a major injury to a key player before the team even reported.

Cornerback Deion Harris, who was projected by some as an NFL draft pick, will miss the entire 2017 season after corralling five interceptions and returning three for touchdowns in 2016.

That leaves UND thin of experience at corner.

The Fighting Hawks will look to returners Torrey Hunt, Evan Holm and Tyus Carter, but the team is going to likely need a true freshman to play immediately.

That means extra attention will be given to incoming corners Hayden Blubaugh (Aurora, Colo.) and Kyle Hietpas (Little Chute, Wis.).

3. How does UND's offensive line shake out?

Schweigert has stressed this offseason the offensive line needs to improve, and the team lost just one starter (Michael Coe) from 2016.

From 2016, UND returns at least part-time starters in tackle A.J. Stockwell, guards Demon Taylor and Dan Bell and centers Patric Rooney and Grant Aplin.

Former starter Mat Cox returns for his senior season after missing most of 2016 with a knee injury. He started the first four games at right tackle a year ago.

Bryce Blair, Elijah Grady, Ryan Tobin, Nathan Nguon and Noah Mortel will challenge for spots, especially on the right side of the line.

Tobin, Nguon and Mortel redshirted in 2016 and received high praise from the coaching staff throughout the season.

4. How does inexperience impact linebackers?

UND's linebacking corps took hit in the offseason, with seniors Dylan Bakker, Jawon Johnson and Brian Labat using up their eligibility and Connor O'Brien retiring for injury reasons.

With those four starters out, UND will be keeping a close eye on the battle for playing time at linebacker.

Tanner Palmborg has moved from safety to outside linebacker, while Jake Disterhaupt has gone from outside linebacker to inside.

Those moves provide a little stability to the position group, although the youth at linebacker might have a chance to jump into playing time.

Ray Haas and Jake Geier redshirted last year and will have the best chance of cracking the lineup, while a rare true freshman linebacker could get a look in Noah Larson of Baraboo, Wis.

5. Can any rookie wide receiver warrant playing as a true freshman?

UND returns its top five wide receivers from 2016 and the position has gone from a weakness to a strength.

Still, UND's incoming class has a handful of wideouts coming in with some high expectations.

UND's newcomers played big roles in 2016 after Clive Georges suffered a knee injury in Week 1, a setback that ended Georges' career.

True freshmen Travis Toivonen (433 yards) and Noah Wanzek (367 yards) made immediate impacts, as did Texas State transfer Demun Mercer (553 yards).

A number of newcomers will be worth watching, even if there aren't many passes to go around in 2017.

Cam McKinney, a speedster from Seattle, impressed as a mid-year transfer in the spring.

Mikey Griebel of Littleton, Colo., and Izzy Adeoti of Plano, Ill., were also mentioned during last February's signing day as two potential impact players early in their careers.

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department for the past 13 years. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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