Havre Daily News sports editor
Basketball season is over in Havre. Baseball really hasn't begun yet, and no one is quite sure if winter is over, no matter what the calender says. And with summer still on the horizon it is certainly too early to think about football.
Too early unless you are a collegiate football player, and in Havre, the Montana State University-Northern football team begins its annual spring drills today.
Never has the enthusiasm been higher heading into a spring practice than it is right now for the Lights' program.
Northern finished the 2005 regular season with a 5-5 overall record and a third-place finish in the Frontier Conference. The Lights came dangerously close to winning several games last season that would have likely vaulted them into the NAIA playoffs for the first time ever.
With 10 returning defensive starters, three standout running backs and arguably the conference's top quarterback returning for the 2006 season, hopes are high that this will be the season the Lights indeed reach the next level in NAIA football.
“We're very excited about this spring for a number of reasons,” MSU-N third-year head coach Mark Samson said. “First, I think we have the most depth that we have had since I have been here, so we don't have as many concerns or holes to fill as we have in the past.
“And I think with the talent we have coming back, we can really use this spring to get our younger kids a lot of reps,” he added. “So we can even establish more depth heading into the fall.”
Samson recently wrapped up a very solid recruiting class that is mixed with key transfers and outstanding high school talent. Most of the transfers are already on campus and will participate in spring drills.
Two of those transfers will be immediately expected to fill key wide receiver positions. Northern was hit hard at the wideout position where the Lights lost three senior starters. But Oregon State transfer Nick Bodeman and former Havre High standout and University of Mary transfer Coda Tchida should step right into starting roles and provide all-conference senior quarterback Kyle Samson with outstanding targets this season.
“I really think with the guys we brought in and the young kids we already have here that we are very talented at wide receiver,” Samson said. “That is one position we are really anxious to get out there this spring and see what we have.”
The offensive backfield is an area where the Lights are set. With Samson back for his senior year and all-conference running back Don Saisbury, as well as tailbacks Saxton Shearer and Zach Wermers returning, the Lights should be very formidable in 2006. That is, if they can rebuild the offensive line, which is this spring's biggest concern.
“We lost three starters on the offensive line, so putting together a new line is certainly one of our biggest priorities this spring,” Samson said. “We have some young guys we're looking at and this spring will be about finding which ones can step in and do the job.”
The quarterback position is also one of interest this spring. Kyle Samson suffered a knee injury in the first half of the Lights' season-finale against Montana Tech last November in Havre. He has since recovered from that injury and is a 100 percent go into spring drills. But Mark Samson said that his starting quarterback's snaps in practice will be down this spring so the coaching staff can work on establishing a solid No. 2 quarterback.
Three freshmen will vie for the backup role this spring and fall. Kelly McBryan (6-0, 190) from Edmonton, Alberta, Kyle Windle (6-4, 190) from Chestermere, Alberta, and Jeff Van Nest (5-11, 185) from Meridian, Idaho, will all battle for the backup role and possibly a future starting spot in 2007.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Lights are set, and this spring will be about depth and strengthening an already stingy defense. With returning all-conference players like defensive backs Marc Samson and Jake Eldridge, as well as linebackers Dilan Saisbury and Kennedy Anderson, along with all-conference defensive lineman Andrew Leichtnam, the Lights appear primed for a big year on the defensive side of the ball. Northern also returns standout starters like linebacker Josh Glahn and defensive end Joe Coleman.
“I think we're pretty much set on defense with 10 starters coming back,” Samson said. “So we can really use this spring to take a long look at some of the younger guys and see what winter conditioning did for them and if they are going to step up and even add more depth for us.”
The young players who could impact the Lights' defense even further include defensive back Khalin Anderson, who saw extensive playing time as a freshman in 2005, and defensive linemen Garrett Glasrud (6-1, 260) and Jay Fulk (6-0, 240).
“We're really excited about taking a long hard look at a lot of these young kids on both sides of the ball,” Samson said. “The real positive about this spring is, because of our numbers and our depth, we can get all these guys a lot of reps and that will really help us find out just where we are heading into the fall.”
Even the kicking game which, wasn't always MSU-N's strong suit in 2005, should be more improved in 2006 as redshirt Luke McKinley steps into the role as place kicker.
“Luke McKinley is an excellent kicker,” Samson said. “I think he will really help us next season and having a strong kicker will only make our offense that much better in the long run.”
Northern also enters spring drills at almost full strength with only transfer Mason Ophus sitting out because of a knee surgery he had earlier this year.
“We are very healthy right now and I think the kids came out of winter conditioning pretty well,” Samson said. “Kyle's knee is fine and he's ready to go.
“I think that this spring is going to be a lot of fun,” he added. “And I know the kids are anxious to get outside and get things started.”
The Lights will hold 13 full practices between today and April 15. Regular practice times will begin at 4 p.m. Northern will hold three scrimmages, with the first one set for next Tuesday at 5 p.m. The Lights will also scrimmage on Saturday, April 8, at 11 a.m., and spring drills will wrap up on April 15 with a scrimmage at 11 a.m. at Blue Pony Stadium.