And that’s just fine with the Lights.
Although Northern went just 3-7 last year and finished near the bottom of the Frontier Conference in scoring, league coaches took notice of a young Lights’ offense on the verge. And the verge might be now as Northern enters the 2011 season hungry to get back on top of the Frontier Conference.
“There’s nothing that substitutes for experience,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “And we have a lot of kids back on offense that got a lot of experience last season. We have a lot of very talented football players on offense, and on top of that, a lot of them are still underclassmen. So that’s very exciting for our program.”
The experience Northern garnered last season should help to serve the Lights’ dynamic offense this season. MSU-N will be a balanced spread attack with a good running game and many playmakers for the Lights’ quarterbacks to throw to. And with the most veteran offensive line in the league, the Lights are poised for big things on offense.
“I’m really excited about the progress this offense has made, last spring and into pre-fall,” Samson said. “The younger players have so much more confidence, there’s a lot of leadership and all-in-all, I think we’ll be a much better football team this season than we were last.
“I think this offense has a chance to do some very good things this season,” he added. “Obviously, we need to stay healthy and we need to be smart on the football field, but with some many returners, and with the athleticism we have, if we execute, we’ll have a chance to accomplish some things.”
As Northern prepares to open the season against UM-Western on Saturday, here’s breakdown of the 2011 Lights on offense by position.
Just a sophomore, starting QB Derek Lear has a much bigger grasp on the MSU-N offense and of how to win in the Frontier Conference than he did a year ago. Lear started nine games for the Lights in 2010 and even through injuries, mistakes and a lack of game experience, he finished second in the conference in passing and total offense. Now a year older, Lear is ready to take the reigns of a powerful MSU-N attack. Meanwhile, backup Travis Dean also played plenty, making one start in 2010. Dean give Northern something it hasn’t had in years – depth at the quarterback position. And Northern could have even more depth as true freshmen J.R. Finai and Trent Godsey both shined in fall camp.
“Derek Lear went through some ups and downs last season, but there’s nothing like game experience and starting for us last season was obviously a big plus for him,” Samson said. “And from last spring until now, he’s really improved, he’s become a great leader and he’s done nothing but solidify his role as our starting quarterback in that time. He’s just a winner and he really has a lot of confidence right now.
“But I have also been very pleased with the progress of Travis Dean,” he added. “Travis has really improved as well and if anything were to happen, I have complete confidence with him in the game as our quarterback. We are very fortunate to have built some depth at that position with these two guys and we feel real good about where we’re at with them. And they’re both only sophomores.”
Running Back/Offensive Line
Northern’s backfield is a veteran place these days with tailbacks Stephen Silva and Justin Montelius as well as star fullback James Chandless. Silva has become a premier back in the Frontier with his speed and agility. Behind his big offensive line, he’s a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball and he’s turned into an excellent pass catcher, as well another vocal leader of the Northern offense. Silva racked up over 800 yards on the ground last season and is primed for another big year.
Montelius and Chandless give the Lights more strength and size in the backfield, and Chandless is a sure thing near the goal line. Samson also said he’s been extremely impressed with true freshman Zack McKinley out of Great Falls High so far this fall. McKinley is the younger brother of former Lights’ standout Luke McKinley. Willie VandenBos is another up-and-coming running back for the Lights.
“Running back is another position we feel good about,” Samson said. “We like our depth there and all of those guys have a lot of confidence in what they are doing in this offense.”
Meanwhile, the Lights return their entire starting offensive line from a season ago. Four of the five are seniors, and three have earned all-conference accolades at one point or another.
Center Jorge Magana (6-2, 270) runs the middle of the offense and is the consummate leader on the field, making line calls and doing everything a center needs to do. Fellow seniors Zeb Olson (6-5, 295) and Matt Cervenka (6-5, 290) are both all-conference players, while senior Joe Pittman (6-4, 320) has a full year of starting under his belt, and junior Brock Hyder (6-1, 265) might just be one of the best overall offensive lineman in the Frontier.
While Northern has assembled one of the biggest and best offensive lines its had in recent years, the Lights are also looking to the future, and depth is so crucial at that position. Jake Criner (6-1, 260) and Rostyn Pace (6-3, 275) will likely see some action this season and sophomore Alex Cummings (6-0, 270) made several starts a year ago.
“Having a veteran offensive line is pretty crucial,” Samson said. “But the thing about those guys is, they are a real tight-knit group. They really work well together and they are all very smart linemen. They know their assignments, they don’t make many big mistakes and they are just very smart football players. So we have a lot of confidence in those five guys that they are going to go out there and get the job done.”
While MSU-N has had some very good receivers over the last 10-plus years, this might be the most talented group the Lights have ever had. Northern returns a pair of starters in sophomores Orin Johnson and Brandon O’Brien, both of which had a big impact on the MSU-N offense a year ago. Adding to the group is JC transfer Kyle Johnston. Johnston stands just 5-8, but he’s another burner and is shifty in the slot. Mick Miller, a huge, rangy and fast target from Fairfield has also begun to really develop and should be another playmaker in the passing game, while Brandt Montelius has also had a strong pre-fall and Tyson Lucier could be ready to bust out as well.
Northern also has some receivers on the roster who will be the future of the program. Former Havre Blue Pony Corderro Strickland has been impressive in pre-fall, while former Chester/J-I standout Ceddy Pogue has also impressed, as has basketball turned football standout Nick Louma.
“This may be the most talented group of receivers we’ve ever had,” Samson said. “And like many other positions, some of our starters are under classmen. I think both Orin and Brandon have really improved a lot from last year, and KJ (Johnston) has been everything we hoped he would be. Mick Miller has also had a really good pre-fall and is really starting to develop into a very good football player. And we’ve got some young guys for the future that are also very, very good.
“We are in a good spot right now at receiver,” he added. “We have a lot of big, strong, fast talented athletes who can all go out and make plays.”
Northern also has a young, but talented tight end in sophomore Brian Torgerson (6-3, 240). The sophomore from Helena started most of the season a year ago and showed signs of things to come with both his pass-catching and his blocking abilities.
“I think we will be a team tough to defend at times this season, provided we stay healthy and we execute,” Samson said. “We did some good things offensively last year, but I feel like we’re well ahead of that now. We’ve really grown as an offense and hopefully all that hard work these guys have put in pays off on Saturdays.”