Highly motivated Dakota Wesleyan football squad ramps up for season debut

Aug. 24—MITCHELL — If a picture is worth 1,000 words, the team pictures for Dakota Wesleyan University football in 2023 are telling a hopeful story.

For one, there's twice as many seniors in the photo of the veterans on the team, with 26 seniors on the roster for this season's campaign, which begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26 against Dakota State.

The Tigers have 26 seniors on the roster this season after having 13 graduate last season. Of the 10 players that could use an extra year of eligibility to come back, five of them did so and all of them are key players: wide receiver Kiel Nelson, running back Jamin Arend, defensive backs Hunter Cordell and Adam DeJong and offensive lineman Parker Grotjohn.

"If we're going to get five guys back, those are five pretty good ones," DWU coach Ross Cimpl said this week. "We've got a first-team All-American there (with DeJong), a first-team all-conference player with Jamin Arend, an honorable mention all-conference starter with (Nelson), a three-year starter at corner (in Cordell) and a two-year starter at offensive line (in Grotjohn)."

"We were super young last year and in this class we have 26 seniors," Cimpl said. "It's a complete shift in terms of upperclassmen leadership. Another birthday didn't hurt our guys."

It speaks to the overall experience of the team that returns and a lot of it apparent on the stat sheet from 2022.

* The top-two rushers are back from last season, combining for more than 1,500 yards and five yards per carry with Arend and Garrett Mandolfo.

* The team's top two quarterbacks are back, including starter Austin Lee, plus the top-five receivers from last year. That includes Nelson, Arend, Preston Nedved, Cole Holden and Logan Feuerbach.

* Ten of the team's top-11 tacklers from last season return to the defense. Among those includes linebackers Layton Eide and Grayson Hanson, defensive linemen Ethan Engen and DeJong, who was an All-American with seven interceptions last season and three ran back for touchdowns.

"We've got some horses back for us on offense and we need them to do what they do," Cimpl said. "We're pretty deep at the skill positions."

There's also the commitment of this year's team that Cimpl is happy to see. Nearly 30 freshmen were on hand from July 10 onward to participate in preseason training and season practices, and that's added to the veterans who have been preparing since December for a new season in which DWU is looking to make a jump up from a three-win season last season.

"We have a different dynamic on the team that's top to bottom and we have guys that are trying to win jobs and trying to play," Cimpl said earlier this month. "It's changed the level of competition that we've seen, which is a big deal. ... Everyone on our team, they work their tails off."

The additional experience should help prevent having to play a lot of true freshmen. Cimpl said only about eight freshmen will dress, while 2022 had 18 true freshmen that didn't redshirt.

The Tigers are highly motivated to start the season 1-0 against Dakota State, which has gotten the better of DWU in six straight matchups, including 29-19 in 2022 in Madison and won 6-0 in Mitchell in 2021.

"We really want to win this game," Cimpl said.