Big Sky spring football glance

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CRAIG HALEY (Stats Perform FCS Senior Editor=)
·11 min read
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(Stats Perform) - Weber State would be a lot of people's preseason No. 2 in the FCS - which is saying a lot considering North Dakota State's dynasty is entrenched in the top spot - if two-year quarterback Jake Constantine wasn't seeking a graduate transfer.

Just that one move in Ogden, Utah, has opened up the conversation to a handful of teams to settle in right behind NDSU. That, in turn, has opened up the conversation with the Big Sky Conference as well.

Weber State has earned a share of the last three titles, but the largest FCS conference (13 programs) is rich in title contenders. Last year, the Big Sky had a record four teams earn seeds in the FCS playoffs.

Following is a look across the Big Sky with spring practices underway in college football:

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CAL POLY

HEAD COACH: Beau Baldwin (first season; 95-25 overall)

2019 RECORD: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/9th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)

PRIORITIES: Switching from the triple option offense under the retired Tim Walsh to Baldwin's multiple offense while adding new terminology on offense and defense. Develop wide receivers beyond top returnee Quentin Harrison.

NOTABLE: It's a get-to-know-you spring. Baldwin, the FCS national championship-winning coach at Eastern Washington, will open his first season with Cal Poly against FBS opponents ULM and Cal, where he spent the last three seasons as offensive coordinator. Eastern Washington is not on the schedule. Even with more passing, the Mustangs will still want to take advantage of the rushing skills of Duy Tran-Sampson, Drew Hernandez and quarterback Jalen Hamler. Rising senior linebacker Matt Shotwell has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons.

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EASTERN WASHINGTON

HEAD COACH: Aaron Best (26-12, three seasons)

2019 RECORD: 7-5, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (4 offense/7 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replacing four starters on the offensive line. Improve on defense after ranking ninth in the Big Sky in points allowed per game (34.6) and yards allowed per game (445.4)

NOTABLE: Last year's struggles were surprising after the team's 2018 national runner-up finish, but the Eagles still managed a tie for third in conference. They expect to bounce back behind one of the best FCS quarterbacks in Barriere. Fellow starters Andrew Boston and Johnny Edwards IV form a strong receiving duo. Linebacker Chris Ojoh, a 2018 standout who was injured last season, rejoins Jack Sendelbach in the lineup, and the Calin Criner-led secondary should be much improved. The home schedule rivals the strongest in program history, with Western Illinois and Northern Arizona as nonconference games followed by visits from Montana, Idaho, Weber State and Montana State.

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IDAHO

HEAD COACH: Paul Petrino (28-55, seven seasons)

2019 RECORD: 5-7, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/6th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (6 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replacing three starters on the offensive line. Develop quarterback-wide receiver chemistry.

NOTABLE: Idaho hopes to contend for a playoff berth in its third season after dropping back to the FCS. The Vandals' defense could be outstanding with just about everyone back in the front seven. There may not be a better linebackers unit in the FCS than the one led by Charles Akanno, Christian Elliss and Tre Walker, with Washington State transfer Fa'Avae Fa'Avae a new addition. There's an open competition at quarterback and either UConn transfer Mike Beaudry or senior Colton Richardson figures to win the top job. The Vandals, though, will be content to give a lot of handoffs to running backs Aundre Carter and Nick Romano off strong freshman campaigns.

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IDAHO STATE

HEAD COACH: Rob Phenicie (13-21, three seasons)

2019 RECORD: 3-9, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/10th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 7 (3 offense/4 defense)

PRIORITIES: Cut down on interceptions to improve a Big Sky-low minus-11 turnover margin. Develop a new secondary.

NOTABLE: The Bengals have uncertainty across the lineup, but a number of players gained experience last season, so the lack of returning starters may not be as bad as it seems. Although quarterback Matt Struck torched Portland State for six touchdown passes, Wyoming transfer Tyler Vander Wall will try to take the starting job. The offensive playmakers figure to be running back Malakai Rango and wide receiver Tanner Conner. The top four tacklers are gone, but linebacker Oshea Trujillo, who was fifth with 66 stops, is returning.

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MONTANA

HEAD COACH: Bobby Hauck (96-26, nine seasons; 111-76 overall)

2019 RECORD: 10-4, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 12 (6 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: Solidify at quarterback, likely with rising senior Cam Humphrey or junior college transfer Robbie Patterson. Develop new starters and depth on the defensive line and in the secondary.

NOTABLE: The Griz reached the national quarterfinals in their first playoff appearance in four years and sense even greater success in Hauck's third season back in Missoula. Quite frankly, their 2020 schedule doesn't appear as strong as last season's. Highlighted by a 73-point performance against Southeastern Louisiana in the playoffs, the offense will remain potent with running back Marcus Knight and wide receivers Samori Toure and Samuel Akem. The defense is losing all-time leading tackler Dante Olson, the 2019 Stats Perform Buck Buchanan Award recipient, but linebacker Jace Lewis (131 tackles) and safety Robbie Hauck (129) joined him in the 100-tackle club.

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MONTANA STATE

HEAD COACH: Jeff Choate (28-22, four seasons)

2019 RECORD: 11-4, 6-2 Big Sky (Tie/3rd)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

PRIORITIES: Improve in the passing game. Overcome the loss of defensive end Bryce Sterk in the pass rush.

NOTABLE: The Bobcats reached the FCS semifinals for the first time in 35 years before getting ousted by North Dakota State. The toughest games this year will be on the road. North Carolina State transfer quarterback Matt McKay joins the mix, hoping to unseat incumbent Tucker Rovig. A full season out of running back Isaiah Ifanse will go a long way as the Bobcats chase the Big Sky title. Also, they didn't have their best all-around player, Troy Andersen, for the final four games last season. He will team with outside linebacker/defensive end Amandre Williams to form a dominating duo.

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NORTHERN ARIZONA

HEAD COACH: Chris Ball (4-8, one season)

2019 RECORD: 4-8, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/10th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)

PRIORITIES: Ho hum, replace quarterback Case Cookus and his 12,076 passing yards and 105 touchdown passes. Reshape the defense after it allowed 41.3 points and 527.2 yards per game.

NOTABLE: While replacing Cookus seems impossible, the next starter can rely on excellent wide receivers in rising junior Brandon Porter and sophomore Hendrix Johnson. The defense seeks considerable improvement, and one of the key players returning from injury is senior linebacker Tristen Vance, who was second on the team in 2018 with 73 tackles. No FCS program may be more set in the kicking game considering the return of first-team All-America place-kicker Luis Aguilar and first-team All-Big Sky punter D.J. Arnson for their senior seasons.

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NORTHERN COLORADO

HEAD COACH: Ed McCaffrey (first season)

2019 RECORD: 2-10, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/10th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)

PRIORITIES: Get acclimated to the new coaching staff and schemes. Get better at the line of scrimmage to improve the rushing offense and defense.

NOTABLE: McCaffrey, the former NFL wide receiver who was on three Super Bowl-winning teams, has two years of experience on the high school level, but UNC is counting on him to lift the program, which went 28-72 in nine seasons under Earnest Collins Jr. The Bears have competition at so many positions, but they're really starting over in the offensive backfield, especially at quarterback (Conner Martin has the only game experience out of returnees). McCaffrey's first game is against Division II Fort Lewis and the road portion of the schedule is difficult.

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PORTLAND STATE

HEAD COACH: Bruce Barnum (21-36, five seasons)

2019 RECORD: 5-7, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/6th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (6 offense/5 defense)

PRIORITIES: Establishing young running backs Jobidiah Malary and JoJo Siofele behind an experienced offensive line. Sorting out the young group of cornerbacks (six redshirt freshmen).

NOTABLE: The Vikings have been competitive the last two seasons and have a chance for a winning record this year, although the schedule is daunting, including Arizona and Oregon State to kick off the season. Senior quarterback Davis Alexander has nearly 7,000 yards of total offense in his career and will work with a veteran wide receivers unit. All-America safety Anthony Adams leads the defense, which gets a boost from two junior college transfers at defensive tackle, V.J. Malo and Holden Williams.

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SACRAMENTO STATE

HEAD COACH: Troy Taylor (9-4, one season)

2019 RECORD: 9-4, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 16 (9 offense/7 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replace defensive end George Obinna and defensive tackle Dariyn Choates to keep the pass rush potent. Replenish the interior of the offensive line.

NOTABLE: The most-improved team in the FCS last season is surely motivated by a poor showing in the playoffs (a second-round loss to Austin Peay as the No. 4 seed). Taylor, the Stats Perform Eddie Robinson Award recipient in his first year as a head coach, is an innovative play-caller who has a wealth of riches in the skills position, led by quarterback Kevin Thomson, the Big Sky's offensive player of the year, and running back Elijah Dotson. The receiving corps even gets back deep-ball threat Johnnie Rucker from injury. The concern surrounds the losses on defense, although cornerback Daron Bland is a key returnee. The Hornets' conference schedule is almost too kind, not including Weber State, Montana State, Eastern Washington and Idaho.

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SOUTHERN UTAH

HEAD COACH: Demario Warren (19-27, four seasons)

2019 RECORD: 3-9, 2-6 Big Sky (Tie/10th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)

PRIORITIES: Continue the consistency along both lines of scrimmage (All-America center Zach Larsen has graduated). Improve with run defense.

NOTABLE: The Thunderbirds, Big Sky co-champs in 2017, hope the younger players who gained experience over the last two seasons will provide some payoff in the win-loss column. They've lost starting quarterback Chris Helbig in a grad transfer to Eastern Michigan, but Tyler Skidmore has experience and three more years of eligibility. A healthier Landen Measom will complement Lance Lawson's pass-catching production. Speaking of better health, cornerback Jalen Russell is welcomed back from injury as the team tries to regain its identity on the defensive side of the ball.

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UC DAVIS

HEAD COACH: Dan Hawkins (20-16, three seasons; 132-77-1 overall)

2019 RECORD: 5-7, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/6th)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Determine the new starting QB after Jake Maier was at the controls for three seasons. Improve defensively under new coordinator Matt Coombs.

NOTABLE: UC Davis was preseason No. 5 and gave North Dakota State an early test last year, but it probably faced too tough of a schedule in a disappointing campaign. Hunter Rodriguez may be the favorite in a large quarterback derby. Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. is a highly productive running back, and the return of Tehran Thomas from injury strengthens the backfield and will help improve the FCS' worst time of possession (25 minutes, 43 records). With the defense was on the field too much, it struggled to stop the run. Defensive end Nick Eaton earned the Big Sky's freshman of the year award and forms a strong tandem with defensive tackle Bryce Rodgers.

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WEBER STATE

HEAD COACH: Jay Hill (47-30, six seasons)

2019 RECORD: 11-4, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)

PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)

PRIORITIES: Replacing quarterback Jake Constantine if he transfers from the program. Overcoming the losses of veteran defensive ends Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez.

NOTABLE: No. 2 running back Kevin Smith joined Constantine in the NCAA transfer portal, but is expected to stay in the Weber State program. Junior quarterback Kaden Jenks is coming off a severe broken leg, so the Wildcats will be cautious with his return. Regardless, the offense is led by two-time 1,000-yard rusher Josh Davis and has additional playmakers in wide receivers Devon Cooley and Rashid Shaheed. Defensive end George Tarlas will get a full-time gig and Jared Schiess anchors the interior of the defensive line. Place-kicker Trey Tuttle has made 61 field goals through his junior season and is on pace to surpass the FCS career record (Montana's Dan Carpenter with 75).