Havre Daily News sports editor
Enthusiasm. That is the word that could best describes the state of the Montana State University-Northern Lights football program at the close of spring drills Friday night at Blue Pony Stadium.
The Lights held their annual spring football game under the lights in Havre, and with the spring season now over, MSU-N third-year head coach Mark Samson said that the enthusiasm surrounding his program has never been higher.
“I think we have a lot of kids who genuinely love to play the game of football,” Samson said. “And right now their attitude is really good.
“When we were done with the scrimmage on Friday night, all the guys could talk about is how they can't wait to get back here in August,” he added. “They are really looking forward to next season and that attitude hopefully will translate into some good things on the football field.”
As for Friday's spring game, the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense both dominated the action against the rest of the MSU-N depth chart.
On offense, the No. 1's, led by quarterback Kyle Samson, scored on three-of-four drives. Samson looked every bit a quarterback ready to help his team make a push toward a Frontier Conference championship and a deep NAIA playoff run. He threw three touchdown passes and completed 8-of-13 passes for 150 yards. Samson threw two TDs to Oregon State transfer Nick Bodeman as well as a 17-yard scoring strike to running back Don Saisbury.
Justin Moe paced the running backs with 43 yards on six carries.
In all, the Lights' offense ran 57 plays during the scrimmage, which was their fourth of the spring.
This fall, the Lights' offense is expected to be one of the league's best with Kyle Samson as an All-American candidate as well as a popular pick for preseason player of the year.
“Kyle looked really sharp this spring and so did Donny,” Mark Samson said. “And our wide receiver transfers Nick Bodeman and Coda Tchida had a very good spring.
“I also think our offensive line is starting to come around,” Samson said. “I feel a lot better about where the line is at heading into fall camp. The offense was really sharp all spring long and in the game they really dominated, which I expected. Right now, all our No. 1's are looking pretty good.”
As far ahead as MSU-N's offense is right now, the Lights' defense could be ready to ascend to the top of the Frontier Conference in 2006. The Lights No. 1's completely shut down the MSU-N No. 2 offense, including registering an astounding eight quarterback sacks Friday night. According to Samson, that is a good thing and a not so good thing.
“Our defense was really good all spring, and I think all of the guys that started this past season have already improved quite a bit,” Samson said. “Guys like Dilan Saisbury, Joe Tusick, Josh Glaun and Andy Leightnam all came into spring and really looked good.
“But as much as the No. 1 defense dominated in the last scrimmage, we were hoping our backups on offense would do a little bit better than they did,” he added. “One of the things we wanted to do this spring was establish some depth, so we were hoping for some more out of our No. 2's. But our No. 1 defense is pretty darn good right now, so it wasn't a surprise that they shut everybody down on Friday night.”
In 2005, Northern's defense ranked second in the conference in most statistical categories, and with 11 full-time starters returning, the Lights are projected not only to have one of the stingiest defensive units in the league in 2006, but perhaps all of NAIA football.
As for establishing depth, Samson said the race for the backup quarterback job is getting close to being over. Jeff Van Nest seemed to separate himself from the other quarterbacks this spring. Van Nest, a freshman from Meridian, Idaho, will likely be the backup to Samson in 2006, but he might also see some time at wide receiver.
“Jeff didn't get any more reps than the other quarterbacks this spring and he kind of separated himself,” Samson said. “But we also had to use him at wide receiver some and he did a great job there, too. He is a great athlete, and we are going to have to get him on the field some next fall.”
As for other battles for playing time, Samson said that sophomore cornerback Khalin Anderson also made great strides this spring and could vie for a starting position when the Lights return to the gridiron in August. Anderson is a standout from Fort Benton.
Redshirt freshman Luke McKinley has already bolstered the MSU-N kicking game, and his presence makes the Lights' offense even more dangerous.
“It was a pretty good spring all the way around,” Samson said. “The guys really worked hard and we accomplished a lot.
“What is nice is that because of where we're at as a program right now, we'll be able to come in and do a lot of things really quickly in the fall,” he added.
Samson also knows that with having a veteran team come expectations and public expectation will never have been higher then when the Lights get back at it on Aug. 11. Northern, which went 5-5 last season and finished third in the conference, will likely be a popular pick to finish second to defending NAIA national champion Carroll College in the league standings in 2006.
Key games on the Lights' schedule include a season-opening nonconference trip to Dickinson State as well as a Sept. 23 visit to Carroll. The Lights also host UM-Western for homecoming on Oct. 14 and the Saints come calling on Oct. 28.
“We have a lot of kids who are sticking around Havre this summer so that they can work out together and prepare for the season together,” Samson said. “That is pretty exciting. The kids know that we have a pretty good football team and we have a lot of really good football players on this team. They understand how much potential we have, and they are all really excited to get back here and get the season started. Next year is going to be a lot of fun.”
The 2006 MSU-N football season will begin on Sept. 2 when the Lights travel to Dickinson State University. Northern's home-opener will be on Sept. 16 when the Lights host the Rocky Mountain College Bears.
Lights 2006 Football Schedule
Sept. 2 @ Dickinson State, 1 P.M.
Sept. 9 @ UM-Western, 1 P.M.
Sept. 16 vs Rocky Mountain College, 1 P.M.
Sept. 23 @ Carroll College, 1 P.M.
Sept. 30 vs Eastern Oregon, 1 P.M.
Oct. 7 @ Montana Tech
Oct. 14 vs UM-Western
Oct. 21 @Rocky Mountain College, 1 P.M.
Oct. 28 vs Carroll College 1 P.M.
Nov 4. @ Eastern Oregon, Noon
Nov. 11 vs Montana Tech, Noon.