The quarterback play in the Frontier Conference the last decade has been phenomenal, to say the least. For quite some time now, it seems like the Frontier, as some of the very elite quarterbacks in all of NAIA football, whether it’s modern spread-option QBs or true drop-back gunslingers.
And the 2012 season was no exception to that has the Frontier had five QB’s who finished in the top 20 in the NAIA in total offense, and three of whom were in the top 15 in the nation in passing.
Now, with the 2013 season less than a month away, and teams reporting to fall camp within the next few days, it looks as though the Frontier will be stacked at the most important position on the field yet again.
And one of the top signal caller’s in the Frontier resides on the campus of Montana State University-Northern. Senior Derek Lear (5-11, 190) will be starting for the Lights for the fourth straight season, and there’s no question, Lear has already established himself as one of the premier quarterbacks in the Frontier, and the country.
Lear had a breakout sophomore season in which he earned First-Team All-Conference honors, while leading the league in both passing and total offense. He followed that up with a stellar 2012 campaign in which he threw for 2,798 yards, a school-record 26 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 400 more yards. Lear finished second in the league in total offense and third in passing and was rated in the NAIA’s top 10 in both categories at season’s end.
"We expect Derek to have a great senior year," MSU-N offensive coordinator Kyle Samson said. "Not very often do you have four-year starters in this league or in college football anywhere. He definitely has the experience and knowledge of the game. He has had a really good summer and worked his tail off to be better this fall than he's ever been."
Lear, a native of Fairfield, now enters his senior season a two-time all-conference performer, as well as the holder of 13 different MSU-N passing records. Lear has thrown for 7,125 yards and 65 TD’s in his brilliant career, while also holding nearly holding every single-game and single-season passing mark in the MSU-N record book.
"Our team will go as Derek goes and if we are going to contend for a championship he needs to be at his best every week," Samson added. "Because when he's at his best I truly believe he's as good as there is in this conference. He has to be our leader every day and I believe he is definitely up to that challenge. He wants to be remembered as a winner, and this is his last year to prove that, and I am very confident he will lead us to a great season. He's a great kid off the field and has always represented our program with great character and class and has been a pleasure to coach. We're very excited to see him perform in his senior year."
And this will be Lear’s final season at Northern and the Lights will soon have to turn the page at the quarterback position. He’ll have big shoes to fill, but junior backup Travis Dean, who has battled injuries nearly his entire time at Northern, should be ready to fill the role when called upon.
Around the League
When talking about returning quarterbacks, or the best of the best, Frontier, and NAIA fans for that matter need look no further than Ashland, Ore. Southern Oregon stormed into its first year in the Frontier, claiming a share of the regular season title and reaching the second round of the NAIA playoffs a year ago. And a huge reason why was quarterback Austin Dodge (6-2, 205).
Dodge burst onto the Frontier scene, putting up video-game-like stats in his sophomore season. Dodge led the NAIA in both passing and total offense, as he threw for an incredible 5,076 yards and an insane 42 touchdowns. What’s more impressive, he threw just 10 interceptions while averaging nearly 40 pass attempts per outing, and he completed 65 percent of his throws.
Dodge did have the benefit of a pair of NAIA All-American receivers at his disposal last season, and both of them graduated last spring. But make no mistake, he’s simply one of the best quarterbacks in the NAIA, if not the best, and he’s entering his junior season to inflict more of his aerial assault on the rest of the Frontier Conference.
Carroll College has always had a proud tradition at quarterback, but the 2012 season was an unusual one for the Saints. Carroll lost three times in the Frontier and missed out on the NAIA playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons. In the midst of all that, Carroll was breaking in a new QB in then-junior Dakota Stonehouse. And while the end results of the 2012 campaign weren’t what Carroll fans have come to expect, Stonehouse was none-the-less impressive.
Stonehouse (6-1, 195) is a tremendous athlete who could play about any skill position on the field. His running ability makes him a very dangerous, dual-threat quarterback, and it showed last season as he rushed for 873 yards, which was fourth in the Frontier. He also grew into a strong passer by season’s end, throwing for 1,987 yards and 24 touchdowns in Carroll’s run-heavy offense.
Now, with a year under his belt, Stonehouse returns for his senior season, and don’t be surprised if he really takes off. His talent is off the charts, and now he has the experience of a full Frontier Conference season to go with it.
Rocky Mountain College also has a top dual-threat QB returning in junior Bryce Baker (6-2, 205). Baker, who has started for the Battlin’ Bears for two seasons, looks more like a drop-back passer but he can take off and make big plays with his feet, and that’s why he’s finished in among the top QB’s in total offense the last two seasons. In 2012, Baker threw for 2,384 yards and 17 touchdowns, while only throwing 10 interceptions. And now a junior, with plenty of games under his belt, Baker certainly deserves to be mentioned among the top quarterbacks in the league.
Montana Tech is going to be a popular pick to win the Frontier this fall. The Orediggers had a great run in 2012, and they are loaded with talent up and down the roster. But one thing Tech needs is a starting quarterback, since star Nick Baker graduated after a tremendous 2012 season.
The likely replacement in Butte is senior Brian Schwarzkoph (6-2, 202). He started much of the 2011 season for the Diggers’ before moving to wide receiver a year ago. But Tech, and head coach Chuck Morrell, have options when fall camp opens, including junior Clay Cavender and sophomore Matt Berg. Berg is an interesting option as he was a former Butte High star QB, who originally went to the University of Montana, before returning home to take over the kicking duties at Tech. Morrell also signed a pair of star recruits at QB this past spring in Helena High’s Dawson Reardon and Red Lodge’s Sean Sullivan, both of whom were considered two of the state’s best QB prospects from the Class of 2012.
One thing is certain in Butte, all the pieces are in place to make a run at not just a Frontier Conference title, but a deep playoff stint as well, and whoever takes over the QB position will need to be the right, final piece to that puzzle.
UM-Western could also be on the rise this season, but the Bulldogs are looking for a starting QB too. Last year, Kenny Bradley and Jeff Logan split time at the position, but Logan has graduated and Bradley wasn’t listed on the spring roster. Junior Tyler Hulse could be an option to win the job, while this spring, Western also had Matt Lickfold and Joe Ries taking snaps.
Meanwhile, Eastern Oregon returns two QB’s who started in 2012 in Jasson Simonis and Ray Walter, both seniors, while Dickinson State will likely look to Matt Harkless and Thad Lane to run its option-based attack.
And while there will be plenty of interesting storylines around the Frontier this fall, the quarterback position will always stand out, and with greats like Dodge, Lear, Stonehouse and Baker at the helm, the production at the quarterback position might just be at an all-time high in 2013.
Editor’s Note: Over the next three weeks, the Havre Daily News will break down the top players in the Frontier Conference by position. For a look at the top offensive lineman in the league, see Wednesday’s Havre Daily News.