Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – If the Big Sky Conference football
title race without Vernon Adams Jr. feels different to you, imagine how it
feels to players at, say, Montana, Montana State or Cal Poly.
Or imagine how it feels to Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin, whose three-
time defending conference champions no longer have the quarterback generally
considered the most electric player in the FCS. And the Eagles no longer have
a heavy favorite’s role.
With Adams’ announcement last month that he would play his final season at the
University of Oregon, the complexion of Big Sky football changed dramatically
The title race suddenly is wide open to plenty of contenders in the largest
FCS conference (13 teams).
Here’s a look across the Big Sky with spring practices getting underway around
Two programs are getting acclimated to head coaching changes, Bob Stitt coming
aboard at Montana from Colorado School of the Mines and offensive coordinator
Bruce Barnum getting a one-year contract to prove himself at Portland State.
In North Dakota’s first season under coach Bubba Schweigert, the offense
struggled last year, but the defense was sound, even underrated. Eight
starters are back to the unit.
Northern Arizona is similar to North Dakota in a reverse way, experienced on
offense but replacing a lot on defense. Senior cornerback Marcus Alford will
try to whip the inexperienced unit into shape.
Weber State also seeks considerable improvement in coach Jay Hill’s second
season. The Wildcats were more competitive than the 2-10 finish suggests, and
this year’s home portion of the schedule offers some winnable games.
With Adams’ departure, junior Jordan West, who started four games while Adams
was injured last season, is expected to win the competition at quarterback.
Whoever is under center will target Cooper Kupp, who has hauled in 37
touchdowns over his first two seasons.
Sure, losing quarterback Garrett Safron stands out at Sacramento State. But
the defense gave up too many big plays last season and needs to play better in
the fourth quarter.
Southern Utah dropped off by five wins from its first-ever playoff team in
2013, as coach Ed Lamb had only four seniors in the two-deep and the defense
surrendered 526 yards per game – second-worst in the FCS. There will be more
veteran leaders this season.
Back-to-back wins over Montana and Montana State highlighted Cal Poly’s
season. The Mustangs return triple option quarterback Chris Brown and nine
starters on the No. 1 rushing attack in the FCS, but the defense was hit hard
by senior losses and the first half of the schedule is brutal.
Idaho State lost only two starters from its superb offense, but one of them is
record-setting quarterback Justin Arias (4,076 yards, 38 touchdowns). Coach
Mike Kramer surely can fill the spot, but can he improve a defense that
allowed 31.4 points and 474.8 yards per game?
Adams and Arias shared All-Big Sky first-team honors last season, but Montana
State quarterback Dakota Prukop was threatening for it until he suffered a
late-season knee injury. He will wreak havoc as a junior, surrounded by a
Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins, a mere 9-36 in four seasons, is
changing his team’s offense to a spread attack.
What was lost in UC Davis’ last-place finish a year ago was quarterback Ben
Scott started the final six games and threw for 18 touchdowns with a pair of
300-yard outings. An experienced offense is back.
Southern Utah already knew it had lost standout linebacker Zak Browning to an
LDS mission last year. But adding on an injured Matt Holley in the unit was
too much. Holley returns after having shoulder surgery.
Idaho State may have the conference’s best running back-wide receiver duo with
Xavier Finney (1,495 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground) and Madison Mangum
(83 receptions for 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns), respectively.
Montana is hoping wide receiver Ellis Henderson can regain his form alongside
Northern Arizona’s receiving game gets a big boost from the return of tight
end R.J. Rickert and wideout Dejzon Walker from injuries.
Too many injuries never gave UC Davis much of a chance a year ago, but it
allowed players like free safety Zach Jones and linebacker Artice Nelson to
earn plenty of playing time. They’re now veteran leaders.
Linebackers Leilon Willingham, JaQueal Walker and Isaiah Williams all return
from injuries. That may solve some of the Bears’ deficiencies in stopping the
North Dakota’s defense surrendered a conference-low 354.4 yards per game, and
leading tackler Will Ratelle is returning for his senior season.
Sacramento State’s Buck Buchanan Award candidate Darnell Sankey missed
November games last season after being injured. He’s an athletic, overpowering
linebacker who expects to come back strong.
Idaho transfer Chad Chalich, a junior, joins returning lettermen Brady
Gustafson and Markena Simis as well as redshirt freshman Will Weyer in the mix
for Montana’s starting quarterback spot.
In winning its final two games last season, North Dakota started true freshman
Keaton Studsrud at quarterback, and the offense averaged 31.5 points. But Ryan
Bartles and Joe Mollberg (who will miss spring practices) are expected to
try to battle back from injuries and challenge again for the top spot.
Idaho State will look to replace Arias with the likes of redshirt freshman
Tanner Gueller, redshirt sophomore James Delacenserie or JUCO transfer Michael
The deepest position at Eastern Washington may be cornerback, where incumbents
Victor Gamboa and Rashad Wadood will be pushed by D’londo Tucker, Frank Cange
and Nzuzi Webster as they return from injuries.
The fight for Weber State’s quarterback job will likely be decided between
returnees Billy Green and Jadrian Clark.
Despite the loss of its leading rusher among tailbacks in Shawn Johnson,
Montana State has excellent options in Anthony Knight, Chad Newell and all-
around Gunnar Brekke, who all rushed for between 400 and 500 yards last
season, and redshirt freshman Tavon Dodd.
Southern Utah has to get a consistent rusher from Malik Brown, Reysean
Pringle, converted linebacker Jarom Healey or Pete Williams.
Northern Arizona quarterback Kyren Poe has significant experience, but he’s
been inconsistent. He will be challenged by Jordan Perry, who guided the
Lumberjacks to an upset of Eastern Washington.
Portland State has one of the deeper battles at quarterback. Senior Kieran
McDonagh once had a big hold on the position, but oft-injured Paris Penn and
Josh Kraght have raised some eyes and JUCO transfer Alex Kuresa is touted.
FIVE BREAKOUT PERFORMERS
With Cal Poly fullback Brandon Howe departing, sophomore Joe Protheroe will
play a big role in the Mustangs’ triple option.
After Sacramento State lost All-American wide receiver DeAndre Carter,
opponents will focus on Nnamdi Agude. But they can’t forget about Shane
Harrison, who missed last season after catching 49 balls in 2013.
Eastern Washington’s Alex Kacmarcik is expected to make an impact at
linebacker after the Eagles lost Ronnie Hamlin and Cody McCarthy, who combined
on 757 career tackles.
Montana State is seeking a more-aggressive approach on defense, and SAM
linebacker Mac Bignell provides the speed.
Players from UAB’s closed-down program are spread across the country, and
North Dakota hopes running back Ja’Won Arrington can provide immediate
NUMBERS NEVER LIE
Defensive end James Cowser was Southern Utah’s Buchanan Award finalist last
season, but linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu had an eye-catching 12.9 tackles per
Not only did Cal Poly lead the FCS in rushing offense (351.8 ypg), but its
seven turnovers were the fewest nationally as well.
In a pass-happy conference, Montana State allowed too much of it – 293.8 yards
per game and 28 touchdowns.
Eastern Washington surely is too big of a national power to rank 90th in
scoring defense (31.4 ppg) and 95th in total defense (441.9 ypg), as the
Eagles did last season.
UC Davis’ defense couldn’t get off the field because it allowed opponents to
convert 49 percent on third down. On fourth down attempts, it was nearly 53
SPRING PRACTICE DATES
With 2014 records in parentheses
Cal Poly (7-5, 5-3): April 8-May 2
Eastern Washington (11-3, 7-1): April 2-25
Idaho State (8-4, 6-2): April 1-25
Montana (9-5, 6-2): March 9-April 11
Montana State (8-5, 6-2): March 17-April 18
North Dakota (5-7, 3-5): March 27-April 25
Northern Arizona (7-5, 5-3): March 24-April 25
Northern Colorado (3-8, 2-6): March 24-April 25
Portland State (3-9, 2-6): March 31-April 25
Sacramento State (7-5, 4-4): March 10-April 18
Southern Utah (3-9, 3-5): March 17-April 18
UC Davis (2-9, 1-7): March 31-April 25
Weber State (2-10, 1-7): March 24-April 25