A winter storm this week proved that the snow isn’t going without a fight. But never-the-less, it’s time for the Montana State University-Northern football team to hit the practice field.
The Lights are hoping to begin spring drills today, one day after they were scheduled to start the first of 16 practices and scrimmages over the course of the nest month. And Northern head coach Mark Samson said this spring is going to be critical to the progression of what was the youngest team in the Frontier Conference last fall.
“We have a great attitude on this team right now. I’m really impressed with how hard the kids have worked and with their attitude,” Samson said. “The kids are really excited about this spring, and about next season. We had a great offseason. We saw a lot of improvement physically in our kids and the attitude and work ethic was very good. Now we have to go out and use this time to become better football players.”
And making the Lights’ players better might be scary for the rest of the Frontier next fall because Northern returns plenty of talent and is also coming off a great recruiting class this winter. And while the Lights went 3-7 a year ago, Samson knows the potential to be much better is there, and he’s hoping to build on that this spring.
“We have a lot of talent on this team right now,” Samson said. “We have a lot of young talent and that’s exciting. So I believe the potential for us to have a very good season is there. I really believe that. But we have to do the work and that starts right now, with this spring. And I know the kids are excited about that.”
The Lights return a bevy of great players, including 15 players who started games on offense or defense a year ago.
Headlining the list is all-american defensive end Will Andrews, who had a monster 2010 season in which he was near the top of the Frontier in almost every defensive category. Northern also returns three-time all-conference standout Landry See for his senior season at linebacker. See has started every game for three years for the Lights and will be arguably one of the best linebackers in all of the NAIA next fall. Flanking See are even more starting linebackers, including A.J. Pasalo and Jordan Van Voast, who started a majority of games for MSU-N last season. But the talent in the middle of the defense doesn’t end there. The Lights added a star transfer in former CMR standout Jared Rohrback, who was the Class AA defensive player of the year his senior season before signing with the Montana State Bobcats out of high school. And senior Anthony Tate, who was a starter on opening day a year ago will also be back for the Lights. Tate suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in MSU-N’s season-opening win over UM-Western last fall. He’ll participate in spring practice but will be held out of contact drills and scrimmages.
In the secondary, the Lights get back sophomore cornerback Tanner Varner as well as safety Matt Reyant, and sophomore J. Nusbaum, all of whom started in the secondary a year ago. But despite the talent, the Lights are still young, both up front and in the secondary and Samson said this spring will be about guys like Great Falls’ Josh Wilson and talented junior college transfers like Chris Hamilton and Michael McCrary stepping to the forefront to bolster the MSU-N defense. MSU-N has also added a familiar name to the secondary this spring as former Havre High star Kyle Finneman has returned to the Lights and is playing safety. Finneman played for Northern as a freshman and was an all-conference punter as well as making some big plays at tight end, before taking last year off from football.
“Really, we don’t return a lot of starters on defense,” Samson said. “Up front we have Will (Andrews) and then everything is pretty wide open. Obviously we have a lot of great talent at linebacker, especially with adding Jared Rohrback and Anthony Tate being able to come back. In the secondary, we’re young but we have a lot of talent back there, and with some of the guys we’ve brought in, I think we’re better back there than we thought we’d be. What we really have to do this spring, especially defensively is, establish depth. We need to make sure we have guys who can go in there and fill in spots for us right away. But we do have a lot of talent on defense.”
Offensively, the Lights might be light-years ahead of last spring. Northern lost two great wide receivers in Matt Stuart and Kyle Kercher, but the Lights return six offensive linemen who started last season, as well as running back Stephen Silva and fullback James Chandless. The Lights also have a great 1-2 combo at wide receiver in speedster Brandon O’Brien and the versatile Orin Johnson, who had a breakout 2010 campaign and was an integral part of what was, at times, a very explosive MSU-N offense.
And of course, the quarterback position is stable for the first time in some time as well, and that means a lot to Samson. Derek Lear started the majority of the season for the Lights and at times, was ultra-explosive. And highly-recruited Travis Dean also saw action last fall before injuring a knee midway through the year. And while Lear won the starting job a year ago, Samson said both players will have an equal opportunity to show what they can do this spring.
“First, I think our offense is so far ahead of the defense right now, which for spring ball is a little unusual,” Samson said. “But it’s because we return so many starters. So that’s a really good thing. Again, we want to establish depth on offense too, but there isn’t going to be that many position battles, at least for starting spots. We have some young guys who are going to step up for us, and we need that depth, but we also return a lot of experience and talent on offense and that’s really exciting because we just haven’t had that as much the last few years.
“As for the quarterback position, we definitely feel like we have two very good ones,” he added. “And they will get equal reps and an equal chance to show what they can do this spring. Both Derek and Travis have done a great job of improving physically during the offseason, and one of the big things this spring is, we’re looking for them to become great leaders, not just great quarterbacks. We need that out of both of them. But this spring will be good for both of them to show us what they can do, and the goal is to name a starter at the end of the spring.”
And the goals don’t end there. Whether it’s further developing Northern’s exciting young talent, or improving as veteran players who’ve already made a big impact on the Lights’ program, one goal is to get better and establish depth. But Samson says there is another priority that the Lights are going to accomplish this spring.
“A big goal is to become a much more physical, hard-nosed football team on both sides of the ball,” he said. “That is going to be a big point of emphasis this spring. We are going to put them in a lot of pressure situations and put them through a lot of things that we expect will makes us not only a tougher football team physically, but mentally.
“We lost four games last year that we could have and probably should have won,” he added. “And we lost several games in the fourth quarter. So we need to become a team that plays tough, hard-nosed football and we need to become a team that believes we can win those types of games. And we’re going to accomplish that this spring.”
And while the Lights are going to work very hard this spring, and work hard to harness all the great potential that comes with being such a young team a year ago, Samson said he, his staff and all of the Lights who will take the field over the next month are excited and ready to go.
“We had a great offseason,” he said. “We addressed a lot of needs in recruiting, the kids who were here have worked really hard this winter and are all really improved physically. Now it’s time to go out and improve as football players and as a football team. That’s what this spring is all about and the guys are excited. Their attitude towards this spring and next season is really great and it’s going to be a very exciting spring. I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Lights will look to begin spring practice today at 4:15 at the MSU-Northern practice fields. They are planning on practicing Monday, Wednesday and Friday's as well as Saturday morning's and Sunday afternoons.