Commentary: UND football could have high expectations in fall of 2021 but unprecedented offseason lies ahead
A quick turnaround and the era of the bursting transfer portal makes this offseason unique.
HARRISONBURG, Va. -- When the sun sets on each UND football season and eyes turn to the outlook for the following year, it's typically easy to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.
You usually know -- or at least have a pretty good idea -- who's leaving and who's coming back.
But with a 34-21 loss to James Madison on Sunday night in the FCS quarterfinals, the Fighting Hawks enter a short offseason in the middle of a booming, national-wide transfer era and exiting a season in which the NCAA has said the year doesn't count against an athlete's eligibility.
So in terms of roster management for the fall of 2021, UND football will need to figure out which non-seniors are leaving but also which seniors are coming back.
And for who's coming back, it's not as simple as an easy declaration. UND has asked its athletic programs to remain at pre-pandemic scholarship funding levels. With a new high school recruiting class coming in for fall camp in a few months, the Hawks can't afford to bring everyone back, even if there was a desire.
In a typical offseason, one could look at UND's roster and expect a Top 10 outlook for the fall of 2021. The Hawks finished the spring 5-2, ranked No. 7 in the nation, holding a win over the FCS playoffs' No. 1 seed South Dakota State and with the only losses coming in Harrisonburg and Fargo.
Fighting Hawks quarterback Tommy Schuster finished sixth in the Jerry Rice Award voting, which goes to the top freshman in the FCS.
UND running back Otis Weah, who was fifth in the voting for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top offensive player in the FCS, is just a sophomore. His backup Luke Skokna is also a sophomore.
UND's top receiving target Garett Maag, who had a season-high six catches for 87 yards against James Madison, is a junior. The Hawks saw two emerging true freshman figure in to the position, too, with Bo Belquist and Marcus Preston making their marks on the spring season.
Dynamic wide receiver/quarterback Brock Boltmann, who missed the entire spring season with an injury, could rejoin the team in the fall after being listed as a redshirt junior this spring.
At tight end, freshmen Adam Zavalney and Billy Riviere were regulars to mix in with seniors Derek Paulson and Brett Finke.
Along the offensive line, UND's starting tackles are non-seniors in Matt Waletzko (junior) and Donny Ventrelli (redshirt sophomore). After the surprise transfer portal exit of sophomore Kyle Hergel, true freshman Easton Kilty received rave reviews for his potential on the line.
Defensively, UND's top two tacklers -- starting inside linebackers Noah Larson and Devon Krzanowski -- are juniors.
The three starting defensive linemen are non-seniors in nose guard Jalen Morrison (junior) and defensive ends Jaelen Johnson (sophomore) and Graham DeVore (junior).
Three of UND's four cornerbacks on the two-deep depth chart are non-seniors, with the exception of Evan Holm. But starter C.J. Siegel is a sophomore, while backup Caleb Nelson is a sophomore and backup Sammy Fort is a redshirt freshman.
As you can see, UND can return plenty of talent.
UND's outside linebackers, interior offensive line and safety will be the areas to watch for whether seniors stay or leave.
The Hawks started seniors Jaxson Turner and Ray Haas at outside linebacker. At safety, they started seniors Hayden Galvin and Jordan Canady (who missed the end of the season with an injury). At center and guard, UND started seniors Nathan Nguon and Ryan Tobin.
All things considered, the Fighting Hawks have the experience and youth to be considered a Missouri Valley Football Conference title contender in the fall.
But in the coming days, weeks and even months, UND's roster will evolve as the Hawks navigate an offseason unlike any other.
At that point, we'll have to re-evaluate expectations.