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Herald UND football mailbag: Star of fall camp, running back workload and Nebraska score prediction

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

080422 S GFH UNDFB BubbaSchweigert02.jpg
Fighting Hawks head football coach Bubba Schweigert answers media questions following the first fall 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 — Herald UND football beat reporter Tom Miller took questions from Fighting Hawks football fans and answered them here in the latest installment of the mailbag.

Q. Are your expectations for this team different after fall camp?

A. I don’t think my expectations have changed but maybe because I don’t view fall camp as a place where I can have a bunch of perfect answers.

I thought UND needed to get better on the offensive line to progress as a program. They have new players in those roles in 2022, but I can’t say definitively if they’re upgrades until I see it live.

I always think back; did I know John Santiago was going to explode against Wyoming? No. I saw some intriguing explosiveness and potential but that was all.

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You could say the same for a Braden Hanson or a Greg Hardin or an Otis Weah. There were lots of hints here and there but you never really know.

You can learn a lot of subtle things at fall camp, but there’s really such little full tackling that takes place in practices that we can’t learn more until the bullets start flying.

My go-to big picture answer this fall when I’ve been asked to summarize what I’m seeing: This UND team might lack superstars but it’s a deeper roster than I can remember. There’s not a lot of free-loading up and down the roster.

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Q. What’s the positional group that has surprised you the most?

A. The wide receivers. I didn’t see the emergence of Red Wilson and even Elijah Klein coming, so it has the potential to be a deeper group than I was expecting.

We know what to expect from Bo Belquist and Garett Maag but now there’s some intrigue beyond that with Marcus Preston, Wilson, Klein, Nick Kupfer, Nate Demontagnac and others.

UND will travel eight wide receivers to most road trips and that decision is going to be difficult, especially if rookie Caden Dennis begins to emerge midway through the season.

Dennis has the speed they needed to add, but he also needs time in the strength program.

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Q. Any position where you feel the starting position is still up for grabs?

A. Definitely. I think there are quite a few spots really that could change depending on what’s seen once the lights turn on for real.

Starting cornerback opposite C.J. Siegel? It could be Clayton Bishop, Richard Agyekum or Devin Hembry. It’s a toss-up at this point, so someone has to prove they can or can’t in game action.

Right tackle and center will be redshirt freshmen at Nebraska. If Sam Hagen and Danny Carroll succeed, UND will roll with them. But if Hagen struggles, we could see Seth Anderson, the North Dakota State transfer from Moorhead, receive time there. If Carroll struggles, Grand Forks Red River product Peyton Lotysz put together a fully healthy camp for perhaps the first time in his career and might see a shot at center.

There’s also not a lot separating the safeties right now, so game results will dictate any shuffling. But Kadon Kauppinen, Sammy Fort, Jayson Coley, Ethan Ball and Gardner-Webb transfer Malachi Buckner could all make claims for starting spots this year.

Q. What player should we keep an eye out for on Saturday? 

A. You know UND offensive coordinator Danny Freund will like to have some wrinkles and his Swiss Army Knife Brock Boltmann is now gone, so I have to wonder what role Red Wilson will have in the offense.

The 5-foot-9 junior college transfer has a unique skill set, and I could see UND line him up all over the formations. He looks good in practice, but we still don’t really know how he escapes would-be Division I tacklers.

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Q. Any depth chart flips going into game week?

A. I don’t think a true two-deep (if we would really see an authentic one anyway…) would surprise me very much going into Week 1.

I think it’s time that the only juggling of the depth chart that can occur would be because of live results. UND needs a real game to test the unproven parts of the depth chart.

Q. Who’s your final pick for Mr. Memorial (the star of fall camp)?

A. I’ll stay consistent. It’s Red Wilson. He’s made plays in a lot of ways, and everyone has to be interested to see him in space in live action. Honorable mention: Isaiah Smith.

Q. What has to happen Saturday to come home with a victory?

A. UND has to eliminate big plays. By design, the Hawks defense likes to bring lots of pressure at the quarterback. If that doesn’t mean an exposed secondary, maybe UND can strike some fear into Nebraska.

Q. What’s your biggest concern going into the season?

A. Two redshirt freshmen starting at Nebraska on the offensive line. There’s reason to believe UND will be solid with Donny Ventrelli, Easton Kilty and Brayden Bryant.

In my eyes, the success of UND’s season comes down to right tackle and center. Right now, it’s Sam Hagen and Danny Carroll. How they grade out early this year will alter my 2022 expectations, good or bad.

Q. What are you most confident in?

A. UND will be fine at running back, despite losing All-American Otis Weah this offseason.

Isaiah Smith, if he can remain healthy, will put up really good numbers, I believe.

You support Smith with Northern Iowa transfer Tyler Hoosman, up-and-comer Gaven Ziebarth and veteran Luke Skokna … that’s a good group.

Q. Is it going to be a true running back-by-committee? 

A. To start the season, I think you’ll see UND split carries but Isaiah Smith has the potential to demand the workload.

Tyler Hoosman looks like a nice style mix for Smith. He’s got a nice frame and decent speed.

Luke Skokna and Gaven Ziebarth have both proven they can get it done at this level, too.

I just think Smith’s ceiling is the best of the bunch right now.

Q. Do you know if we have any significant injuries heading into the Nebraska game?

A. UND doesn’t appear to have a Deion Harris-like injury where a key player is obviously out for a long period of time. There are a few offensive guys who have been sitting out and the whispers are whether they’re more Week 1, Week 2 or Week 3 guys.

We’ll see this week if we can get any kind of public comments about the injury situation. UND likes to keep that tight, especially going into Week 1, and I don’t want to guess about injuries for obvious reasons.

Q. What do you see as the most improved position group since the start of fall camp?  Since last season?

A. Since I already broke down the wide receivers, I’ll say it’s been really important to get a ton of reps to players at inside linebacker behind Caden White and Devon Krzanowski.

I think Kason Kelley and Wyatt Pedigo can have all-league type careers in Grand Forks, so it was good to get those two backups a ton of reps.

Malachi McNeal will also push for playing time inside within the next year or two. He was a nice get in recruiting but like most guys at this position, he needed to develop with the strength program.

True freshman Paine Parks from Grand Forks Red River made plays when given the chance at camp, too. He needs to add bulk but there are positive signs there.

Q. Which players were the biggest pleasant surprises to you in fall camp?

A. In order to not pump Red Wilson’s tires in every answer, I’ll say there have been glimpses of Elijah Klein at wide receiver that I didn’t see coming.

I knew he was a big target with nice hands, but he has never looked smooth or quick to me.

Despite Klein’s awkward gait, there seems to be an ‘easy button’ when Tommy Schuster wants to lob one up to the 6-foot-7 Mandan product.

Injuries have derailed Klein’s career to this point, so health will always be in the conversation when we talk about Klein.

If he’s healthy in 2022, Klein is going to be a menace in the red zone.

Q. Can our defensive line hold up against the lackluster Nebraska offensive line?

A. It’s tough to say how UND will look against a Big Ten opponent because I have no measuring stick. UND hasn’t played a Big Ten foe since 1976.

I do remember UND struggling at the line of scrimmage against Utah and Washington of the Pac 12. Is that a worthwhile comparison to make to Nebraska? Probably not.

I will say there were many years that the topic of UND preseason was the size of the defensive line, which I think is no longer an issue.

Jaelen Johnson and Jalen Morrison are good-sized, experienced starters. Craig Orlando and Elijah Beach are both in that 6-3, 295 range, so they can bring the right frame.

Starting defensive end Ben McNaboe is a little on the slight side, but he’s probably more of a pass rusher than a run stopper.

So to summarize, I don’t know if UND can hack it on the defensive line against the University of Nebraska. I do think, though, it’s a good FCS unit.

Q. Score prediction?

A. Nebraska 42-24. Yes, the Cornhuskers lost to Northwestern in Ireland. But fans of UND should know what a difference a home venue can make.

Q. With the big news regarding Taylor Swift’s new album release coming in October and her win on the VMAs yesterday, which Taylor Swift album does this year’s UND football team most remind you of?

A. I can always count on a nutty question from this guy. Proudly, I had to Google names of Taylor Swift albums. I’ll pick 2008’s Fearless.

Related Topics: UND SPORTSUND FOOTBALL
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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