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Who's winning the QB race, who's the top rookie and more in the Herald's UND football mailbag

UND coach Bubba Schweigert looks on during Wednesday's scrimmage at Memorial Stadium. Photo by Nick Nelson/Grand Forks Herald.

Offensive line. What needs to improve and do you feel we have the guys in place to improve from last year? -- E. G.

I’ll start with whether UND has the guys in place to improve from last year. In that, I do believe. UND lost Mat Cox and A.J. Stockwell off last year’s offensive line group and those are good leaders, good body types and they’re going to be missed. But they also missed a decent amount of time with injuries, which meant a player like Noah Mortel received some great experience.

I think UND should feel comfortable with Mortel, Ryan Tobin, Patric Rooney and Grant Aplin. I’m not saying that’s a dominant foursome, but they can be average to above average players at this level. With those four, UND can be better up front in 2018 than in 2017 -- if for no other reason than those four gained a ton of great experience last season.

The real worry is at right tackle. It would be Nathan Nguon if he was healthy, even though he’s an interior lineman body type. But he would play at right tackle just to get your best five offensive linemen on the field at the same time.

With Nguon likely out the first few weeks of the season, UND needs someone to step up whether it’s Bennett Helgren, Sean Russo or true freshman Matt Waletzko. I haven’t seen enough from any of those three to say they’re grabbing this opportunity by the horns yet.

Now, let’s go back to the first part of the question. “What needs to improve.”

UND has had a mix of bad recruiting and bad luck. Elijah Grady played at right tackle as a true freshman and instead of netting a four-year lock over there, he was a one-and-done. Should anything have been done differently or is that bad luck?

You can play the what-if game with Demon Taylor, too. He ran into legal trouble and the team parted ways. He had potential.

How about a guy like Justus Merz? He was hurt his first season and didn’t return.

Canadian offensive lineman haven’t helped this staff, either. Rain Slater and Zack Williams -- both tackles -- are two examples who come to mind. They committed at one point and never arrived.

Perhaps a more troubling part of this issue to me is this staff couldn’t snag a transfer in the offseason. I’m told offensive line is a very difficult spot to grab a transfer, but it’s clear the staff swung and missed up front in transfer recruiting.

Heard about a week ago that CJ Siegel was having a nice camp and transitioning well to corner. Have not seen his name mentioned much, any thoughts? Also curious if Zeke Ott will make the D rotation this year. -- WW

Siegel seems like a true freshman who will benefit from the new rule that allows coaches to play a rookie up to four games before making a real decision on that redshirt.

On one hand, Siegel moves like a good Division I defensive back. Athleticism will not be an issue for the young cornerback from LaCrosse, Wis.

If I have a concern, it’s that he’s a little on the light side. Can he handle the physical nature of the game?

That said, I think he receives a look. UND has Deion Harris, Evan Holm and Hayden Blubaugh as locks at corner. But they’re going to need to start trusting a fourth or a fifth. Siegel, as well as classmate Jacob Odom, are, to me, at the top of that next-up list.

As for Zeke Ott, he definitely will be in the mix at defensive end. Mason Bennett and Austin Cieslak will start, but I like Ott right behind those two.

UND really needs Ott to live up to his recruiting hype, especially considering defensive linemen Nick Honerlaw and Quintin Seguin have sat out with injuries lately.

Do you think we have a tough schedule this year? How realistic is a playoff run? -- G.K.

The schedule is a bear this year, which you can look at a couple of ways in terms of a playoff run.

The back-to-back Washington and Sam Houston State stretch could be tough on a team’s psyche and medical staff.

On the other hand, Sam Houston State and, later, home games against Weber State and Montana could be opportunities to make a case for postseason inclusion. Those three teams should be ranked high when they face off.

UND doesn’t play in Montana this year, which is probably a good thing for playoff hopes. But UND will need to navigate going to Idaho and Northern Arizona late in the year. Those will be challenging.

I think a playoff run is realistic if UND returns to look a lot more like 2016 than 2017, which isn’t out of the question by any means.

How’s that for a wishy-washy answer?

What does a successful season look like in the eyes of the players and coaches? The fans and alumni? The athletic department and university? -- M.S.

Interesting question. I think a successful season for each of those categories starts with how the wins and losses go down.

Last year, it wasn’t so much that UND lost the showdown with South Dakota early in the year, it was that the Yotes dominated and basically embarrassed the Fighting Hawks.

It felt the same way shortly thereafter against UC Davis and Montana.

So, it’s tough to set a W-L mark on what makes everyone happy. I think it’s more about being in every single game than it is about saying UND has to finish above .500 or heads are going to roll.

That said, Bubba and staff built a long leash with the start of their tenure, but this is college football. Two years of a downward trend and that seat is going to get hot.

Football is too big of business for an athletic department for it not to be that way. There are too many dollars at stake if attendance would slide in the wrong direction. I think coaches, admins know that.

Who on UND should Mississippi Valley State watch out for based on camp and who should UND fans learn about from MVSU? -- O.F.

I guess apart from the usual suspects anyone can see on film like John Santiago or Noah Wanzek, UND will have a new look under center. From what I’ve seen at spring ball and fall camp, Nate Ketteringham -- assuming he’s named the starter -- will give the Hawks a different look.

Ketteringham has the size, wheels and arm to be a really good quarterback at this level. I’m curious to see if he can put it all together at UND when the lights really come on.

Who should UND fans learn about MVSU? I have no idea. To be honest, if anyone for MVSU ends up being relevant to UND’s 2018 season, something went horribly wrong in the opener. If MVSU even stays close with the Fighting Hawks, it’s going to be a really long year -- again -- in Grand Forks.

What percent chance does UND have to make the playoffs and why isn’t #HawksRise the official hashtag? -- J.S.

To make the playoffs, UND is going to have to win seven or maybe eight. The key is going to be in the Alerus Center, UND is going to have to dang-near win out there.

You know what would make a huge difference in the hopes? A win at Sam Houston State. That’s a big if, though.

I’ll peg it at a 25 percent shot. Is that too harsh? I don’t know, maybe seeing every minute of 2017 (except Week 4 when I got married) has jaded me.

As for the hashtag, I prefer #talonsup … nobody’s on board? Oh, well.

Does it look like there is a leader for the starting QB position? What do you think will be our best unit on defense? -- T.M.

I think the QB leader is Nate Ketteringham. He has the physical tools, and he’s done it before in the Big Sky Conference.

I like Andrew Zimmerman’s moxie. I like his leadership ability, and he has shown flashes of being able to hack it at this level.

What separates Ketteringham, in my opinion, is his ability to escape the rush. (Insert jokes about the scrimmage here).

I just don’t think Zimmerman moves well enough in the pocket to extend plays.

Brock Boltmann started camp on fire, but he’s cooled off a bit. It looks to me like they’re calling plays for him to be a run-heavy type quarterback.

Perhaps UND uses Boltmann as a change-of-pace guy even this year.

Boltmann might still be the guy long range, but I don’t think he’s the guy in 2018.

As for the second part of the question about best on defense … I’ll go with the inside linebackers, which is crazy considering where that unit was last year.

But Donnell Rodgers and Noah Larson are all-conference caliber players and you back that up with Cam Hunt, Ev Williams, Tyron Vrede and Hayden Reynolds.

It’s a good unit when your leading tackler from last year, Jake Rastas, hasn’t even been mentioned yet, and I still like that kid down the road. He was chucked in the fire early, and he handled the situation admirably.

Could you go in-depth on O-Line (appears to be biggest ? out of any unit). Going down the line are they strong / average / weak. Ex: Strong LG, Weak RT. Where are the position battles? Is the expectation they could improve drastically given how young the unit is? -- A.S.

I dug into the offensive line in the first answer up top here, but I’ll see what I can do to dive in more.

I think Noah Mortel and Ryan Tobin have the best potential to continue to improve. They were pegged as the future a while ago now, but they were thrust into starting roles last year maybe a bit ahead of schedule.

I think Patric Rooney and Grant Aplin are steady. They might not be all-conference types, but they’re reliable.

As mentioned above, right tackle would be the weak link as it sits now.

The real shame is Nathan Nguon not being healthy right now. I thought he was poised to break out, even if he had to play slightly out of position at right tackle.

Without Nguon for the first few weeks of the season, it’s down to Bennett Helgren, Sean Russo and Matt Waletzko.

Bryce Blair and Jeremy Jenkins were moved down from tackle to guard, which is an interesting move for both.

Blair just couldn’t pack on the proper weight for a tackle. Jenkins, meanwhile, has a perfect tackle build so I’d guess they’re hoping a position move sparks some positive change.

To answer the last part of the question there, I’d say there’s certainly optimism that some of the youth here would make positive strides, although UND fans should be concerned if an offensive lineman gets hurt this year.

Who are your picks for breakout players this year on offense and defense? Also, which true freshman (besides Maag) do you see having the biggest impact? -- R.W.

Breakout player on offense: During spring ball, I would have said Mikey Griebel. He’s been hurt all fall camp, so I’ll change it to Graham DeVore. That’s boring, I guess, picking a fullback but I think DeVore takes over at fullback and provides some of the athleticism that was missed when Kyle Norberg went down early last year. He would have played in 2017 if he didn’t come to fall camp banged up.

Breakout player on defense: Jaxson Turner. I think Turner has elite athleticism. UND had him returning punts in practice last year, something you don’t see often for a linebacker. UND’s defense is set up for an outside linebacker to be a playmaker and Turner can be that guy, in my opinion.

Top true frosh outside Maag: I like Otis Weah. He reminds me of Josh Murray. He’s a mix of a John Santiago and Brady Oliveira. He’s got that scoot but also a little thump to his game. Could he lead UND in carries in 2019? I can see it ...

How does the kicking game look?  And on a related note, what do you make of this pipeline to Moorhead, a school with an NDSU coaching tree? -- M.E.

The kicking game has been pretty good, considering it’s mostly freshmen at punter, kicker and long snapper.

Brady Leach has kicked it pretty well until the scrimmage, when he missed two very makeable kicks. He has the leg, and he’s an athlete but we won’t really now the mental makeup until the seats are filled.

Leach will almost certainly be an upgrade from 2017 in terms of kickoffs. I expect him to have the leg to net touchbacks, something UND couldn’t do after Reid Taubenheim’s injuries. That drove fans nuts.

I think the Moorhead kids have been good for UND. Leach seems like a good find, Jade Lawrence has been a solid player at linebacker and Otis Weah is impressing at running back.

As for the Moorhead staff having a Bison background, I don’t think much about it. Any coach wants to see his kids be put in the best situation possible and if that means UND, I think most people can see beyond the rivalry there.

What is the status of Luke Stanley, who sat out all last season and apparently still isn't playing? -- S.S.

I need to double check on whether anyone thinks he can actually make it back to the field. He’s at practice every day, jogging around the track and helping out in drills when he can. However, he appears to still be in pain when he runs. I know he has a genetic leg issue that makes one calf smaller than the other. He used to convince the young players it was a shark bite incident. But I imagine that leg issue will make it difficult for him to recover to the point of being able to play at a high level. That’s a shame because he sure seems like a good kid.

Saw you mention Steve Greer was making plays and looking bulk. Good to see. Do you think more football players looking to bulk up will be joining the GF Park Board baseball staff in future years after seeing the results that Happy Joes lunch buffet got Greer? -- L.B.

Have you seen the diced Canadian bacon? This is a no-brainer for anybody looking for bulk.

Is this one of the most iconic tackles in Alerus Center history? -- D.B.

Yes.

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department since 2004. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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