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MSU-N Football 2010: Lights defense

 


For the better part of six years now, the Montana State University-Northern has built solid football seasons around an aggressive, stingy defense.

Northern has typically been statistically one of the top defenses in the Frontier Conference year and year out.

However, injuries hampered the Lights in 2010, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

But with key veterans back, exciting young players and some tweaks to their defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Jake Eldridge, the Lights are looking like they could be right back to having a great defense in 2010.

"The defense has had a really good camp," veteran MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. "The guys have worked really hard, they've really been working to improve. We had a lot of guys come back in great shape, stronger, and the attitude on this team has been really good. I've been really impressed with how things are going on defense."

Northern will still run a base 4-3 defense this fall, but Samson said his team will do some things differently. Fans will see the Lights drop a defensive end once in a while and bring some more pressure from its front seven.

And pressure will be a key to the Lights' success. Back this season are two former NAIA All-Americans in Jared Weigel and Will Andrews. Weigel didn't play football a year ago, while Andrews has been out for over a year with a leg injury.

Joining the duo on the outside is former Libby star Travis Hjort. Hjort was a prized recruit out of high school, but injuries forced him out of football early. He last played in 2007, but he returned to the Lights this fall for the chance to play one more season, and Samson said. he's been looking really solid and will certainly bolster the Lights on the defensive line.

And with several great pass rushers on the roster, MSU-N is hoping to make plenty of plays in opposing team's backfields this season.

"In this league, to be successful, you have to get some consistent pressure on the quarterback," Samson said. "And I think we have the guys to do that. Will Andrews has had a great camp and Jared is playing well. Those guys are veterans and we know what they bring to the table. And Travis Hjort is really looking good. I think he's really going to help us this season."

Of course Northern needs run stoppers too, and at defensive tackle, the Lights have some big guys plugging the middle. Senior Jeff Mahana (275) and sophomore Sean Thorton (250) are both returning starters on the line, and Mahana has been playing since he was a freshman. Nick Weller, Logan Anderson and Kyle McDonald will also see plenty of time on the Lights' line this fall.

MSU-N's linebackers will also be stout, giving the Lights another great front seven.

The Lights will be without former all-american Stetson Koffman, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last year, then participated in spring practice but decided to leave the team in the summer.

However, MSU-N does return an all-american candidate in junior Landry See. See has started every game for the Lights on the outside the last two seasons, and he's one of the top returning tacklers in the Frontier. Anthony Tate will start on the outside for Northern as well and he has a chance to have a breakout season. On the inside, MSU-N is going with junior college transfer A.J. Pasalo, a 240-pound sophomore from California. Northern is also building some good depth at linebacker with the likes of former Havre High standout Jordan Van Voast pushing for playing time, as well as Cole Brevig and Ryan Halko.

"We have a chance to be very good up front," Samson said. "I'm really happy with how we've performed up there this fall.

"And our linebackers are doing really well," he added. "Landry (See) is having a tremendous fall camp, and there are some backups, like Jordan Van Voast who are really play well right now. One of the things you'll see from us is, we're trying to do different things with the defensive front in order to loosen things up. We want to give our pass rushers some more freedom, and give the athletes we have on defense more chances to make plays. So I'm excited about where we're at right now."

Of course the secondary plays a huge part in what happens with a defense, and the Lights have been somewhat a work in progress there in recent years. While Samson said this season is no different, he sees improvement.

"We're not quite where we want to be in the secondary, but its been much better, the kids have been working really hard and I'm proud of their progress," Samson said. "We have some talented guys back there, and some promising young players. Like every year, its about getting in the games and learning those positions. But I like the guys we have back there and I think they'll make plays for us."

Leading the MSU-N secondary is four-year starter Casey Varner at safety. Varner has played both corner and safety for the Lights and he has been as reliable a defensive back as there is in the Frontier Conference. Northern also returns veteran Seth Wildung, who had a strong 2009 campaign and sophomore Wade Kelly. Kelly, a former Fort Benton standout had a great freshman season, finishing second in the Frontier in total tackles. Former quarterback and true athlete Matt Reyant has also been moved to defensive back and has had a strong fall camp.

At corner, the Lights will start senior KC Barrett on one side and redshirt-freshman Tanner Varner on the other. Both players have showed good things in fall, but this is the first year starting for both of them.

With veterans like Andrews and Weigel back this season, with an all-american linebacker like See and another potential all-american in Varner, MSU-N has a great group of leaders on defense, and a lot of talented guys around them. So the outlook for 2010 is better than good. The Lights have the chance to be a great defense this season, and Samson is excited about what could be this fall in Havre.,

"We have a chance to be pretty good," Samson said. "We still have to execute on the field, but certainly, we really like the personnel we have. The things I'm proud of is, the guys have really worked hard this fall, really pushed themselves to get better and I think that's going to show in our games. This unit really plays hard and I think, if we can stay healthy, we have a chance to do some great things this year.

The MSU-N defense will get tested right away. The Lights open their season Saturday against UM-Western's wide-open passing attack in Dillon.

 

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