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5 young players UND needs to break through at spring ball

Feb. 27—GRAND FORKS — The UND football program opens spring ball Wednesday at the Fritz Pollard Athletic Center.

The Fighting Hawks are turning the page from an offseason that saw three offensive coordinators in January and the high-profile offensive exits of veteran quarterback Tommy Schuster to Michigan State and standout offensive lineman Easton Kilty to Kansas State.

Two UND coaches will be making debuts in offensive coordinator Isaac Fruechte and offensive line coach Trevor Olson.

At quarterback, UND will have its most wide-open battle in years with junior Trey Feeney and redshirt freshman Jerry Kaminski headlining the new options.

In many ways, a new era opens at the Pollard with a new offensive coordinator, a new strength and conditioning coach, ongoing facility construction nearby and uncertainty at quarterback.

The Herald has selected five young players the program will be looking at to break through during spring ball. To make the list, players needed to spend the 2023 season with the Hawks and quarterbacks were excluded as too obvious to pick.

The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Thaden is the front-runner to replace Kilty at tackle, despite his lack of experience.

The Omaha product spent his first season at UND at tight end but was often labeled as the next in line late in 2023 by outgoing offensive coordinator Danny Freund.

Thaden's athleticism as a former tight end is considered a strength, but he's going to be asked to continue to gain weight to look the part of a Missouri Valley Football Conference offensive tackle.

If Thaden doesn't shine at spring ball, UND also has the possibility of swinging Sam Hagen back outside from his 2023 guard position. Hagen played at tackle in 2022 and has a 6-foot-6, 325-pound frame that might be best-suited outside.

UND has struggled at the safety position the past few years and loses both starting safeties from 2023 to graduation and top backup Sammy Fort to the transfer portal.

The most experienced returners at safety from within the program are Cole Davis, Ethan Ball and Jett Sutton.

Within that group, Erkman has been pegged as having the most upside, partly due to his 6-1, 205-pound frame.

The Lake Zurich, Ill., native traveled with UND some last season. When a rookie makes a travel roster and hasn't been asked to play that season, it's usually a good sign the program is tagging him as a future difference-maker.

Transfers, including Louisville's Dan Martens, will push Erkman for playing time in 2024. However, Erkman should have an initial edge with a year's knowledge of the system.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Farmington, Minn., native needs to have a good offseason for a defensive line unit that loses to graduation Barty Ogbu, Jeff Griffin Jr. and Jaelen Johnson. Ben McNaboe also tranferred to Ohio.

With McNaboe leaving, UND's pass rush takes a major hit. The Hawks are going to need new defensive ends to emerge.

McNaboe was UND's only defensive lineman in 2023 to have more than 1.0 sack. No returning defensive end had more than one quarterback hurry in 2023.

In addition to Mohr, Casey Schultz returns from an injury and Jack Teiken will be asked to step up.

UND might even ask true freshman Langden College, a 6-4, 220-pound Minneapolis native, to step in to the rotation right away.

With the losses of Red Wilson and Wesley Eliodor to graduation and Jack Wright to the transfer portal, UND needs the 5-11, 180-pound Glen Ellyn, Ill., native to be a weapon in the passing game.

Tai was able to get his feet wet in 2023, making defenders miss on a 33-yard catch at Murray State while maintaining his redshirt status.

Tai, a former high school quarterback, has an elusive skillset that could plug in to Wilson's vacated role.

Apart from star returner Bo Belquist, UND's returning receivers of Elijah Klein, Nick Kupfer, Nate Demontagnac and Caden Dennis will all battle for playing time, but Tai is the shiftiest of that group.

The 6-3, 220-pound Omaha product saw his redshirt pulled in 2023 and has the frame and athleticism to be a star in UND's 3-4 system.

Most of UND's successful pressures a year ago came from the inside linebacker group with Malachi McNeal forcing 10 quarterback hurries and Wyatt Pedigo forcing eight.

The top outside linebacker in terms of quarterback hurries was Ted Mullin with five. Mullin is out of eligibility.

Rucker had three tackles for loss in 2023 and showed glimpses that he can be a force defensively at a position group badly in need of a difference-maker.