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Herald UND football mailbag: Quarterback observations, candidates to emerge, transfer impact

Herald UND football reporter Tom Miller took questions from Fighting Hawks fans and answered them in this installment of the Herald UND football mailbag.

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(From left) UND tight ends Josh Yon, Noah Schaffner, Adam Zavalney and Trace Thaden watch as teammate Jack Ihry (30) catches the ball during the first fall football practice of the season at Memorial Stadium in Grand Forks on Wednesday, August 3, 2022.
Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — The UND football team has a handful of fall camp practices under its belt in 2022, so Herald reporter Tom Miller fielded questions from Fighting Hawks fans for this mailbag.

Q. Which position group thrives the most and which one struggles the most?

A. That’s a tough question to kick things off. I would say I’m most impressed with UND’s wide receivers. It’s a deeper group than they’ve had in a while with a nice mix of body types and skill sets.

At wide receiver, you have the returners who have produced in Garett Maag and Bo Belquist, but you also have a nice stable of next-up possibilities in Marcus Preston, Jack Wright, Nate Demontagnac and Tyler Burian.

Then you have the newly emerging players. Elijah Klein of Mandan is showing his height will be of value and junior college transfer Red Wilson, who I’m sure I’ll get into more later in this mailbag. He’s adding a different element.

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And finally, you have a nice array of options in terms of long-range hopefuls in Nick Kupfer, Sam Strandell and Caden Dennis.

In terms of who struggles the most, that’s tough to say through a few practices. I think UND’s biggest concern is offensive line where there’s a lot to prove for first-year possible starters in center Danny Carroll as a redshirt freshman and Devils Lake’s Jack Kuntz as a sophomore.

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The Fighting Hawks will face a run-heavy opponent in Youngstown State, a program entering the matchup with questions at quarterback.

Q. Which transfer makes the most impact right away? How would you rank them?

So far, I’d have to say wide receiver Red Wilson, who has produced nearly every day at practice both on underneath balls and Tuesday he caught a long bomb when he laid out for a diving catch from Quincy Vaughn.

But guard Brayden Bryant and safety Malachi Buckner could be in this mix, too. Buckner is too early to say because they’re slowly working him up through the depth chart in the first few practices. He has the athleticism and size to be a big upgrade at safety. Bryant has been really solid so far.

I haven’t seen enough of Northern State transfer Jake Oliphant, or North Dakota State transfers Barty Ogbu and Seth Anderson to say they’d rank higher on this list. Not good or bad, just not enough of a body of work.

Q. In an ode to the Vikings’ Mr. Mankato, could you name a Mr. Memorial, someone who has impressed so far during fall camp?

A. I have a feeling I’m going to sound like a broken record in all these early write-ups, but you’d have to say Red Wilson is having the best fall camp so far. He has made plays every day and perhaps it’s standing out even more because he’s coming from such an obscure place in Mesabi Range.

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Q. What is the biggest position battle right now, and who do you have winning it?

A. The biggest position battle, in my opinion, is at starting cornerback opposite C.J. Siegel.

UND lost veteran Evan Holm to graduation, and the Hawks need someone to step up in a starting role.

The competition has been fairly wide open with junior college transfer Devin Hembry, Netherlands native Richard Agyekum and Wisconsin product Clayton Bishop.

Agyekum was listed as the starter to open fall camp and had a nice day Tuesday, but I think Bishop wins the job as he offers the best combination of size and speed.

Q. Are there any true freshmen that have impressed enough to potentially have his redshirt pulled?

A. Not yet. I’d have to see more from wide receiver Caden Dennis and cornerbacks Jamal Dixon and Antonio Bluiett.

I wouldn’t be surprised if those three played in the four games you can now play and still maintain your redshirt, but I wouldn’t pull a shirt unless there are injuries.

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Q. Who would be your one player to have a breakout season from the offense and the defense?

A. I think offensively you’d have to start with 6-foot-6 wide receiver Elijah Klein, who has battled injuries throughout his career in Grand Forks. If he can stay healthy, he’s putting together a really solid spring ball/fall camp here.

Defensively, I’m high on inside linebacker Wyatt Pedigo out of Kansas. UND will go with Devon Krzanowski and probably Caden White as starters at inside linebacker but Pedigo and Kason Kelley are two young players with a lot of potential at inside linebacker.

Q. Any positional battles you’re seeing that you didn’t expect going into fall camp?

A. If I had to pick one, I’d guess I didn’t see Elijah Klein and Red Wilson impacting the wide receiver depth chart as much as they’re going to impact it.

I knew there’d be competition between the likes of Nate Demontagnac, Tyler Burian, Marcus Preston, Jack Wright, etc., but I didn’t see Klein and Wilson jumping so high into playing time right away.

Q. Field goals were costly last year. Do you see an improvement this year?

A. That’s partially a hard one to answer because UND spends a lot of time on its kicking game away from the typical practice window. At times, they’re kicking out of the line of sight, whether it’s really early in the morning or outdoors when everyone else is indoors.

That said, my brief first impressions of the kicking unit as a whole has been good. Not only has Brady Stevens and Cade Peterson made solid contact, backup kicker C.J. Elrichs and backup punter Luke Silvernale have had good first impressions. That’s not always the case. I’ve come to expect the opposite from rookie backup special teamers. If you’re a UND fan, you can view that as a pleasant surprise.

Q. How does the defensive line look? Getting closer to ideal MVFC weights?

A. I think you have the right combination of body types at defensive line. The key will be to keep the Jalen/Jaelens healthy. Jalen Morrison at 6-2, 290 is a good weapon inside. One other thing to keep in mind, UND is tinkering more with nose guard depth at defensive end for when they’re playing a run-heavy offense.

Ben McNaboe is a really nice, young pass rusher, but he’s still a little slight. You might see an Elijah Beach line up there if you’re facing a Youngstown State or Illinois State of 2021 when it was clear they’re not interested in a lot of the pass game.

Q. Would you expect the offensive line to improve from last year?

A. This is really the most important question of 2022. We all know what to expect from Tommy Schuster, Garett Maag, Bo Belquist, even much of the running game. It all comes down to whether UND can upgrade on the offensive line.

I’m not comfortable yet signing off on major upgrades, but I will say that the additions of Brayden Bryant, Jake Oliphant, potentially Seth Anderson, a healthy Peyton Lotysz and an older Danny Carroll/Jack Kuntz is on the right track to a better 2022.

I’m pretty confident Carroll is going to be a really good MVFC offensive lineman in 2024. Can he be in 2022? I need more proof.

Q. Which freshman has the best chance to make an immediate impact?

A. I’ll assume we’re talking true freshmen, so I’ll say Jamal Dixon has the body type at cornerback that if UND sees an injury to one of the top four or five at cornerback, the Moorhead product is a good candidate to play right away.

Q. There’s some hype around Simon Romfo. What type of QB is he?

A. The first thing that stands out is Romfo has the best scramble ability of the top four quarterbacks.

He’s certainly undersized and what will more than likely cost him a shot to be a major player at quarterback but he’s just scrappy and makes plays with an above-average arm.

He doesn’t pass the initial eye test but if you watch enough practice you’ll leave thinking that small No. 6 made a lot of plays.

Q How many non-QBs will throw passes this year? 

A. I’ll say two. I’m going to guess Bo Belquist has it in him, and that’s extra fun because he’s a lefty and he’ll come across the formation and people will assume he has to turn across his body to throw.

I say two because there’s got to be a halfback pass on the goal-line a la Brady Oliveira to Luke Feidler in the playbook.

Q. Do you think a seventh-place preseason ranking is too low or just about right?

A. I’m not one to care a whole lot about preseason ranking perhaps because I’ve voted on them for so long. You take last year’s end-of-year standings and very minimally shake them around.

In my opinion, not a whole lot separates Nos. 3-7 in the MVFC. And if you lost to No. 1 and No. 2 by less than a touchdown, you’re not far off.

Q. Will we see a more mobile Tommy Schuster this year? We know he is quick on his feet and able to avoid sacks, but will Freund use that mobility as an offensive weapon this year?

A. I think first off, let’s establish Tommy Schuster is not Keaton Studsrud. He will not break off a 40-yard touchdown run.

Where I think Schuster could grow is this: Let’s say he’s rolling out and doesn’t like what he sees. In the past, he’s often put that ball into the stands. I think he can tuck it in and make it second-and-6 rather than second-and-10.

So, yes, I think Schuster is going to use his feet more, but I also think it’s important to be realistic. He’s snagging those 4-yard gains. He’s not explosive.

Q. Will anyone push Schuster for the starting QB spot?

A. This was really an offseason question of mine, as well.

But after watching spring ball and the start of fall camp, I think it’s clearly Schuster’s starting job. The question for me is how much is Quincy Vaughn used.

Without Brock Boltmann to be the change-of-pace offensive wrinkle, Vaughn’s playbook may expand.

From there, it’s all live results going to dictate playing time.

But to answer the question, I haven’t seen a serious challenge to Schuster at fall camp to this point.

Q. Which of last year’s redshirts will make a difference?

A. There’s a pretty solid list of the 2021 recruiting class ready to make an impact in 2022.

I’ll say the two I’d guess make the biggest impact are cornerback Clayton Bishop, who could start opposite C.J. Siegel, and running back Gaven Ziebarth, who has the potential to earn the starting spot.

Ziebarth could get a little buried behind Isaiah Smith and Tyler Hoosman, but I’d bet on Ziebarth emerging as a relevant factor in 2022.

Q. Among our 10 tight ends, who do you see as being the top two contenders, besides Adam Zavalney, for playing time?

A. I think Max Gunderson and Jaden Norby will be the top two tight ends in the mix after Zavalney. Norby had a nice true freshman season last year, more so in a blocking role, but I see him catching the ball fine in the future.

Haydn Stay, Josh Yon and Mason South are all true freshmen tight ends with similar body types. I’ll need to see more of these three to know whether they’re capable of cracking that top group.

Related Topics: UND FOOTBALLUND SPORTS
Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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