By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Montana State University-Northern football coach Walt Currie didn't get Nick Walker a card, but Currie was more than happy to see the former Dickinson State quarterback graduate. And he's even happier that Walker won't be playing on Saturday when the Lights open their 2003 season against Dickinson at Blue Pony Stadium.
Walker, who transferred to DSU from the University of Montana, carved up the Northern defense last year for 311 total yards, threw for four touchdowns and did everything but sell concessions during the 35-14 win in Dickinson.
"I am certainly not sad to see him go," Currie said. "He was as good a football player as we've ever played against. He really caused us some problems last year and basically won the game for them all by himself."
With Walker's only presence at DSU in the record book, the question the Northern staff is asking is "How can Dickinson replace an All-American quarterback who accounted for 2,460 yards, 32 touchdowns and rewrote all the passing records at DSU?"
"We've got a lot of people asking that question here, too," said Dickinson State head coach Hank Biesiot. "Nick was a fine player and an even better leader, but we've lost some other very capable players who brought a physical presence to our team."
Indeed, the Bluehawks lost four players from their offensive line along with bruising tailback Mike Luther. Still, no tears are being shed for Biesiot and his squad. DSU has a capable replacement at tailback in Wolf Point's Jace Schillinger, who saw significant action in each game. And Phil Espinoza returns up front after missing most of last year with a knee injury.
Dickinson may not have a wealth of experience up front, but a pair of starters return and the replacements do have talent and size if not the experience of games played.
However, Dickinson's real strength lies on the other side of the ball with a stingy defense that returns 10 of 11 starters. DSU suffered a few bumps in the road last season playing several sophomores and freshmen, but the unit should drive pretty smoothly this year.
"They're still kind of young," Biesiot said. "But that's where we are most experienced. We are going to have to rely on them early in the season while our offense catches up."
When the offense catches up will definitely be affected by whoever becomes Walker's permanent replacement.
The job has come down to two candidates, but Northern will probably only see one. Highly-touted transfer Rafe Espinoza of Arlee is suffering from an elbow problem and most likely won't play. Espinoza transferred to DSU from NCAA Division I Boise St., where he played receiver.
Instead, Mike Spargo, a junior from Ventura, Calif. will get the start. Spargo has never thrown a pass in a game for DSU. Biesiot lost last year's back-up and his only returning quarterback with any game experience, Garrett Olver, early in the fall camp.
While Biesiot has plenty of questions about his team, Currie and his team have more questions that need to be answered than an avalanche of standardized tests.
Like Dickinson, Northern will start a quarterback who has never taken a snap in an NAIA game. Redshirt freshman Neill Crandell will make his college debut on Saturday against a very good Dickinson defense. Crandell worked out the entire spring and fall as the starter and the job is his, provided he remains healthy.
"Neill is the man right now," Currie said. "The job is his to lose and I don't think he'll do that. We just have to keep him healthy."
Keeping players healthy hasn't been easy for Northern the past few years. And this year is proving to be no different. The Northern defense, which was plagued by injuries last year, saw the trend continue this spring. Two of Northern's four returning starters have gone down with knee injuries and are out indefinitely.
Unless something major changes, senior cornerback Bill McGuire's career as a Light is over with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Starting outside linebacker and fellow senior, Brenden Scott, is also out indefinitely with possible ligament damage to his knee.
"Really, we only return one and a half starters," said head coach Mickey Williams. "Nate Walters still isn't quite 100 percent healthy and it is going to take some time for him to be completely healthy."
Walters, who suffered an ACL tear in the middle of last season, is still fighting the effect of the reconstructive surgery, but will gut it out and play on Saturday.
That leaves Williams one completely healthy returning starter from last year. Luckily, it's a pretty good one. Junior All-American Bomont Somerfeld returns to anchor the Lights inexperienced defense. Somerfeld was dominant last season picking up 81 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 4 sacks.
That still leaves Williams with nine positions to fill. There are no certainties at any position and Williams, along with linebackers coach Lucas Gunderson and secondary coach Jeff Currie, will most likely try several different players looking for that right combination.
The Northern offense hasn't been quite as plagued with injuries as much as the defense. The Lights will be without starting tackle Brad Walters, who took a hard hit to the chest this week. He will be replaced by sophomore Trevor Nelson.
That injury withstanding, the Northern offense is relatively healthy and will look to its slotbacks and receivers like Tanner Woodward, Kris Marshall, Nick Arnold and Tanner Cochrell to make some plays.
One thing is certain, the game should be a hard hitting, physical affair.
"We always have real hard-nosed, head-knocker type games with Northern," Biesiot said. "We like to play a physical style and so does Northern."
Said Currie: "I don't expect Hank to change the way his team plays. He's been playing good, hard, physical football since he's been there. And we don't know any other way to play."
Northern and Dickinson will kick-off at 1 p.m. at Blue Pony Stadium. The game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.