By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Spring football? The Montana State University-Northern football team had milder weather in November. Fortunately for head coach Mark Samson, the rest of the state is far from balmy right now, leveling the spring playing field a little.
But the brushing of snow hasn't stopped the Lights' spring season as they practiced for the first time Thursday night in the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gym.
Despite the early weather issues, Samson is more than upbeat about spring practice.
"The kids are anxious to get outside," he said. "We had a good winter in terms of conditioning and weight training. But I think we have some kids getting a little cabin fever. They really want to get out on the field."
With a plethora of young players filling the Northern roster, Samson knows that spring practices are especially important for his team.
"We want to get a little tougher physically and mentally," he said. "We had so many young kids playing last year and that's one thing that stood out that we needed to get better at."
Northern will practice three times a week, primarily on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with three scrimmages set for Saturday in April, starting on April 2.
"We had a lot of kids redshirt last year," Samson said. "We really hope to see them take a step forward and see if they compete for playing time. The scrimmages will give them that chance."
If the prospect of his returning players getting better isn't enough for Samson, the prospects he's added to his 2005 recruiting class can only help.
Samson has signed 13 more athletes to go with the 13 other players he signed earlier this spring.
Headlining the list is Fort Benton running back/linebacker Khalin Anderson, who will join his brother, Kennedy, as a member of the Lights.
"Having Kennedy in the program really helped," Samson said. "They both understand that the program is on the upswing and headed in the right direction."
Anderson helped lead Fort Benton to the Class B state title game in the last two seasons and was named all-state at both positions after rushing for 696 yards and scoring nine touchdowns.
He is a solid all-around athlete, having recently wrapped up basketball season with the Longhorns. This spring he will look to defend his state titles in the long jump and triple jump and will be a serious contender in the 100-meter dash after finishing second last season.
"We expect a kid like Khalin to come and compete to get on the field right away," Samson said. "He is as good of all-around athlete as there is in the state. He brings the type of athleticism and play-making ability that we need."
Samson got another athlete from a few miles down the road, adding former Big Sandy standout Adam Jesperson, who will transfer in from Montana Tech.
As a senior in 2003, Jesperson was a key member of the Big Sandy team that advanced to the Class C title game. Jesperson recorded 145 tackles and 10 interceptions that season, earning all-state honors. He redshirted for the Orediggers this past season.
"I've already told Adam that when we walks in here this fall that he's going to be on the field," Samson said. "Now, whether that's 60 or 70 plays a game remains to be seen. He's gotten quite a bit bigger and stronger since high school. He gives us some depth in our secondary that we didn't' have last season."
Samson addressed one of Northern's biggest needs, signing CMR kicker Luke McKinley to an NAIA national letter of intent.
McKinley was one of the top kickers in Montana this past season, earning first-team all-state honors in Class AA. He was also named to be the kicker for the East Squad in the East-West Shrine game.
"It's huge signing him," Samson said. "He's very, very consistent and has kicked in a lot of big games in his career. We're going to bring in another kicker as well, but getting Luke is very big."
Another area in need of depth is offensive line, and Samson added three players to help, signing Ben Benhart (6-0, 320) of Belt, Dustin Merritt (5-11, 270) of Sidney and Jason Smith (6-1, 273) of Roundup.
Benhart was all-state for the Huskies and was named to the Shrine game. Merritt was a first-team all-state offensive lineman for the Eagles and was named as a Shrine game alternate. Smith was an all-state center and defensive tackle for the Panthers this season.
"These three are definitely going to help us in the future," Samson said. "There is a period of adjustment for offensive linemen. I don't know if any will see the field right away, but you never know. Merritt is just a solid football player, who comes from a good program. Benhart is one of the largest human beings I've ever seen."
Samson also fortified his linebacker corps with three in-state signees, led by Fort Benton's Cory Roth. The 5-10, 205-pound Roth was a first-team all-state linebacker and fullback this past season.
"Cory's a tough son-of-a-gun, who works really hard, particularly in the weight room," Samson said. "He comes from a good program. He may redshirt, but I could see him contributing on special teams next season."
Also signing were Stetson Koffman (5-10, 200) of Helena Capital, Tony DeLeo (6-1, 200) of Livingston and Tyler Thomas (5-10, 190).
Koffman played for Samson as a sophomore at Capital, while DeLeo didn't play this season, but was an all-conference center and linebacker in 2003. Thomas also earned all-conference honors.
"I coached Koffman for three years, so I am pretty familiar with him and he was pretty easy to recruit," Samson said. "He blew his knee out in the first game of his senior season. He's got a good nose for the ball and is really excited to come up here.
"Thomas is a kid that we project to be an outside linebacker," Samson added. "He came very highly recommended from people we know in Sidney. We recruited DeLeo last year, but he took a year off to work and save up money."
Samson didn't limit himself to just recruiting in-state. Instead, he added three skill players from out-of-state, two of whom could make an immediate impact.
He picked up some much needed help with the signing of wide receiver Justin Kissee of Chugiak High School in Chugiak, Alaska.
Kissee is a big receiver, standing 6-4 and 185 pounds. He racked up 465 yards receiving and seven touchdowns en route to grabbing first-team all-conference honors as receiver and defensive back in the Cook Inlet Conference. He also earned second-team all-state honors at wide receiver and defensive back.
"He's a true 6-4 and we're going to use him at receiver," Samson said. "You know he was in a passing offense his first few year, but his team ran more of a Wing-T offense this year, so his numbers were down a little."
Kissee is still a bit raw, but Samson hopes he will have an immediate impact this fall.
"He's going to take a little coaching and polishing," he said. "But how often do I get a chance to sign a 6-4 receiver that's athletic and can run. I really do believe he can help us right away."
Samson added a pair of quarterbacks, signing Kelly McBryan (6-0, 200) of Edmonton, Alberta, and Jeff Van Nest (5-11, 180) of Meridian, Idaho.
McBryan played in the Canadian Junior Football League the past two years and will be a 21-year old freshman.
This past season, he helped lead the Edmonton Huskies to a win in the Canadian Bowl and was named the Prairie Conference league MVP and offensive player of the year.
McBryan completed 108 of 193 passes for 1,813 yards and eight touchdowns.
"He's a good athlete," Samson said. "He's played junior football the last four years, which is better competition than high school ball."
McBryan will back up Northern's all-conference quarterback Kyle Samson, but will also be on the field some as a receiver.
"Kelly understands the situation with Kyle," Mark Samson said. "But I'm not going to leave him on the bench because he's too good of an athlete. We're going to get him in the game some at quarterback and use him some at receiver. He's big and can run and he'll help us."
Van Nest had a solid year for Meridian High, leading the Warriors to a 6-4 record and a place in the Idaho state playoffs. He earned all-state honors.
"Van Nest is an intriguing prospect," Samson said. "Offensively, what his high school program ran is very similar to the things we run. That shouldn't make the transition quite as difficult. He's a big sign. He was being recruited by Eastern Oregon, UM-Western, Montana Tech and Rocky."
Van Nest's signing has triggered the possible signing from two other Meridian players.
"That's a good program," Samson said. "We wouldn't mind getting a little pipeline going."
Samson is still recruiting and plans to add at least 10 to 15 more athletes in the coming weeks.