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The next step is still the goal, even as Lights operate without spring football

 

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Three freshmen quarterbacks had a battle for the starting job during the Montana State University-Northern Lights' fall camp last August. All three would be battling it out again right now, had the Lights been able to hold spring ball. And while spring drills and all sports were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern head coach Andrew Rolin said that he was excited to see what his maturing Lights would have done on the field over the next month, including watching his talented quarterbacks progress. For more on the Lights and how they're handling the COVID-19 situation, see next week's Havre Daily News.

Right now, no-one in college football can do anything about taking the next step. Not with spring football officially canceled around the country.

However, football will be back some day, and the next step is exactly what head coach Andrew Rolin says his Montana State University-Northern Lights must do.

Prior to the Frontier Conference canceling spring ball league-wide, which was set to start on March 30 at Northern, Rolin said the next step is the simple message he is instilling in his Lights, and that would have been the driving force behind this year's spring drills.

"The message is simple," Rolin, who is about to embark on his third season as the head man at MSU-N, said. "It's time to take the next step as a program. The culture has been established, the foundation has been built. Now we have to take the next step, and that's to execute at a much higher level in games."

Execution has been Northern's setback in the last two years, but especially last season, where the Lights were certainly talented but also hampered by just too much youth and inexperience. Rolin said, though, heading into this spring, that part of the program was finally turning a corner.

"We have been really young the last couple of season, playing a lot of freshmen and guys who weren't ready to play," Rolin said. "Probably too many kids who weren't ready. But those were the cards we were dealt.

"So going into this offseason, and into spring, I feel like we really are getting to be a more experienced football team," he continued. "Our roster was starting to really show some experience and depth, and we added even more to that with this current recruiting class."

Rolin also said that, his two new additions to his coaching staff were big, too, and that's another reason why spring ball being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough.

In the winter, Northern hired former CFL guru Rich Stubler as the new offensive coordinator, while Donald Celiscar from Minnesota was hired as the new defensive backs coach.

"Those were big additions to our staff," Rolin said. "Those two guys bring so much to our defense. So spring ball was big for us in a lot of different ways, but one of the reasons I'm really bummed about not being able to have a spring is, not being able to see those guys coach our kids yet, because I'm really excited about what they both bring to the program."

While Stubler will run Northern's defense, Rolin remains in charge of the offense, which will likely have a quarterback competition on its hands when football does return to Northern. Redshirt-freshman Brendan Medina started nine games for the Lights, while true freshman Tre' Long also saw action. Redshirt Oakley Kopp will also be in the mix when practices are allowed.

"Going into the spring, my thoughts were to have an open competition and give all three of them equal reps for at least the first week," Rolin said. "I'm not a guy who likes to name a starter in spring ball anyway. I think you've got to have more time to evaluate.

"But I'll say this, Brendan did a great job as our starter last year, and Tre' got in there and got some opportunities as well. I think all three of them are very talented, and bring a lot to our team. They're young, but they're all three very good, so at this point, I love our quarterback situation. We're good there."

The Lights were good offensively in many ways during last year's 1-10 campaign - that is, except on the scoreboard. Northern was middle of the pack in total offense last season, and the Lights third in the league in passing. But, when it came to getting the ball in the endzone, the Lights finished the season last in the Frontier in scoring, averaging just 17 points per game.

And while Rolin said, he likes the offensive roster he'll have going into next season, he says, they need to execute better, which is always what MSU-N strives for.

"Offensively, I think we're loaded with talent," Rolin said. "I like where we are up front, I like our running game, and I think we've added a buck more talent to our wide receiver group. I think we have a lot of explosive playmakers on offense. So I have high hopes for our offense. But at the same time, we have to play better. We have to execute at a higher level, and do it more consistently.

"And we've got to stop people from scoring on us a lot more, too," Rolin added.

And that will be another goal. Northern is looking to revamp its young defense under Stubler, who has an impressive coaching resume, especially in professional football. The young Lights of 2019 allowed 42 points and 471 yards of total offense during last season, but like the bulk of MSU-N's roster, the defense is growing up, with standouts like Joe Fehr, Japerri Powell and Justin Pfeifer now having a ton of game experience.

"I think we have a lot more experience coming back," Rolin said. "But it's not just the guys we have, we're installing a new system, a whole new culture on defense under coach Stubler. It's going to be completely different, and our guys have bought into it. That's why it's a bummer we won't be able to show it this spring, but I think we're going to be a totally different team defensively when we get back out on the field."

Of course, Rolin doesn't know when that will be. With spring ball canceled, he and his coaches working from home, and his players also at home doing the remainder of the semester remotely, things have certainly changed in a hurry.

"Honestly, our biggest priority right now is helping our kids academically," Rolin said. "I think our students are at a big disadvantage by not being on campus, so we feel, as coaches, we need to be another resource for them, and get them all the guidance and help they need academically. Really, that's where so much of our focus is right now."

Yes, Northern can't play football, but Rolin and the Lights are using technology to power forward (more on that next week). That doesn't mean, though, that Rolin's message isn't any more pronounced. It's the same message he's preached from day one, and it's a positive message that he's telling his players as they navigate not just football, but life, through this crisis and seemingly, the world that changed overnight.

"Just staying positive and being there for them," Rolin said. "I tell them all the time, they'll play football again. That will happen. So right now, just keep your head down and do what you're supposed to do, which is stay healthy, stay safe, and take care of your business in school.

"But nothing has changed overall," he added. "The process continues. We're becoming the program we set out to be, and I believe in the team, the talent we have, and the culture we have established as a program. We're doing things the right way, and we're going to keep building this program up the right way."

 

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