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UND FOOTBALL: Looking for depth at running back

Depth at running back took a hit over the winter when the UND football team cut its most productive offensive player, senior Josh Murray, for violating team rules.

UND football helmets

Depth at running back took a hit over the winter when the UND football team cut its most productive offensive player, senior Josh Murray, for violating team rules.

The position has received another shakeup as redshirt freshman Breon Butler will not play this season due to an injury suffered during the spring.

Butler, of Pittsburg, Calif., was expected to challenge to be UND's No. 3 running back behind starter Mitch Sutton and backup Jake Miller.

"We've covered ourselves with depth by bringing in (true freshmen) Jer Garman, P.J. Sparks and Romon Bridges," UND coach Chris Mussman said.

With the injury to Butler, that leaves junior Spencer Bickel, redshirt freshman Adam Shaugabay and converted-fullback Ethan Magstadt as the top returning candidates for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart.

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Mussman said Magstadt, a junior, might have been ahead of Butler on the depth chart, regardless of the injury.

But the Sioux will also look at Garman, Sparks and Bridges to see if pulling a redshirt would be beneficial.

Bridges, who played a versatile offensive role in high school, is currently going through drills with the wide receivers.

Garman, a 5-foot-9 running back from Marion, Iowa, is already considered one of the speediest Sioux players.

"We've liked what we've seen so far from Jer," Mussman said. "But we haven't seen any of the guys live with pads."

Stay on your toes

Sutton, who rushed for 288 yards last season, knows Butler's injury could mean an opportunity for a true freshman.

"It could affect one of our new guys," Sutton said. "One of the incoming freshmen might have their shirt pulled. Hopefully those guys work hard and take that possibility into account."

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Although rare, pulling a redshirt isn't unprecedented for the Sioux.

UND pulled the redshirt on Miller last season and he finished the year with 197 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

The diminutive Miller, who was a high school track standout, provides the Sioux with speed on the perimeter.

"We got along really well," Sutton said of his relationship with Miller. "We're kind of thunder and lightning."

Outside of Sutton and Miller, the Sioux return few with experience at running back.

Bickel, a Minot native, had eight carries for 22 yards last year.

"Spencer is just a competitor who doesn't like to lose," Sutton said.

As a whole, the running backs know they'll play an important role in an offense still searching for a consistent passing game.

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"Going to our meetings, we talk about carrying the team," Sutton said. "Hopefully we can take pressure off the quarterback spot because it's kind of an undecided position right now."

Rain changes up Day 2

With the possibility of severe weather during the morning on Saturday, Mussman pushed back the team's practice to the afternoon.

Light rain came down for most of the afternoon session.

"You always want to practice in the elements," Mussman said. "You want to have a wet ball to snap and the receivers have a wet ball to catch. That puts an emphasis on ball security, which we did a nice job of."

Mussman said the second day of practice was much sharper than the first.

"I think the big thing for us offensively is we eliminated some of the turnover stuff," he said. "For the most part, throws were a little better and more accurate. The guys up front are also starting to get things."

Mussman was also pleased with his defense, particularly the top unit.

"We mixed up some coverages and caused the quarterback to pull the ball down," Mussman said.

QB play improves on second day

After the first day of practice, Mussman said the three quarterbacks vying for the No. 1 job -- Brent Goska, Joey Bradley and Marcus Hendrickson -- were hit and miss.

On the second day, he was complimentary of all three.

"Brent and Joey both had pretty good days (on Saturday)," Mussman said. "Marcus also did a good job running the threes. He took control of the huddle and that's what we're looking for."

Mussman said he would like to have a definitive starter set by Aug. 28, a date the Sioux will begin game preparation for their Sept. 1 opener against Drake.

"I want to be fair to all of the guys and give them live reps with the 1's," Mussman said. "Sometimes, like today, Marcus ran with the threes and when you have a true freshman at offensive line who doesn't know if they should go right or left, it's not fair on the (quarterback) assessment.

"So right now, we'll try to get all three guys quality reps."

Notes

- The Sioux have remained primarily healthy over the first two practices. Defensive lineman Seth Stanchik was held out of practice as he continues to recover from a broken leg suffered last season. "Hopefully, we'll get him back," Mussman said. "We're a little thinner (at the defensive line position) than we'd like. For the most part, though, we're as healthy as we're going to be the entire season."

- Mussman was asked which players have stood out in the first two practices. Defensively, he pointed to linebacker Dan Hendrickson and all three starting defensive linemen (Ross Brenneman, Devin Benjamin and Broc Bellmore). "Ross was at a wedding today, so we did a better job on the offensive line side," Mussman said. "Even Day 1, he's a good player and a high-motor kid." Offensively, Mussman highlighted wide receiver Greg Hardin and running backs Mitch Sutton and Jer Garman.

- Linebacker Dominique Bennett, who was expected to start at outside linebacker, and cornerback Chavon Mackey, who was expected to start at right cornerback, have been suspended for the first two games of the season for a violation of team rules.

Miller reports on sports. Reach him at (701) 780-1121; (800) 477-6572, ext. 121; or send e-mail to tmiller@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: FOOTBALLUND 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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