As a senior in the 2017 season, Cole Reyes is now two years removed from the UND football program.

His name, however, remains a talking point for the Fighting Hawks, who are looking for the next star safety like Reyes to emerge to take the UND defense to the next level.

“Our defense thrives when our safeties are playmakers out there,” UND safeties coach Joel Schwenzfeier said. “We’re challenging our guys to be those playmakers. Reyes was phenomenal at getting guys down. He was good at getting guys down in hard positions, too. Obviously, you want to prevent big plays but he could really make a big tackle on the backside of run plays, getting us in good down and distance situations.”

Reyes’ best season came in 2016 in which he was the first UND player since Weston Dressler (2007) to earn six different All-America accolades.

He was the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year, as he made 70 tackles and had three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.

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UND’s safety play in 2018 -- the first year without Reyes in the lineup -- saw its ups and downs.

Junior Jordan Canady, of New Berlin, Wis., is the leading candidate to be a standout safety for the Fighting Hawks.

Canady, who’s started since midway through his redshirt freshman season, was fourth on the team with 33 solo tackles last year and led the Hawks with three interceptions.

“When we talked to the coaches at the end of the season like we do every year, the big thing for me is leadership,” Canady said. “Coming up under Cole Reyes and seeing what he does, it’s about getting everyone in the right place. At this point, I know what I’m doing. For me, it’s just about being more physical and talking and playing downhill more.

“I think there were a lot of missed opportunities last year. I dropped a couple of picks. I want to make a lot more plays this year.”

Schwenzfeier, who was a standout safety at UND in his own regard, said Canady has a lot of natural ability.

“He’s rangier and plays well in space,” Schwenzfeier said. “Now, we’re challenging him to play in the box more and be a force in that sense.”

Expected to start opposite Canady is Leonard Nelson IV, who appeared in 10 games last season. He was injured throughout most of fall camp and early in the regular season but was able to start the final three games of the season.

He forced a fumble with a big hit late in the year at Idaho and returned an interception for a touchdown in UND’s home finale against Portland State.

“He was pretty green moving into that position a year ago,” Schwenzfeier said.

Coaches say Nelson is also in better condition than last season, as he suffered a shoulder injury early in fall camp and his recovery didn’t allow for much working out.

After Canady and Nelson at safety, Schwenzfeier has difficult decisions to make with a group of four players not separated by much at this point.

The coaching staff said it might wait until right before the season opener against Drake on Aug. 31 before solidifying a depth chart at safety.

Senior Tykeise Johnson, who started eight games in 2018, junior Ty Shannon, junior Jer Dominique, a Hawaii transfer, and junior Hayden Galvin, who played in four games in 2018 before using his redshirt, are all in a battle for playing time, along with promising redshirt freshman Kadon Kauppinen, who appeared to suffer a hamstring injury in Thursday morning’s practice.