Matt Zimmer: South Dakota State spring football update

Apr. 6—BROOKINGS — South Dakota State officially has one week left of spring practice, and on Saturday had their last scrimmage before next Saturday's Spring Game.

The team had several live periods and, as coach Jimmy Rogers said earlier this week, plenty of young and less experienced players are taking advantage of their opportunities to earn playing time after a large senior class moved on after the 2023 season. But I wanted to see for myself. And, uh, they look really good.

Here are some observations from Saturday's practice:

* Chase Mason's arm looks better than ever.

Yes, we saw last year how well he can run, and certainly saw flashes of the big right arm that lit up radar guns when Mason was a baseball prospect.

Maybe it's just me (I obviously don't see them every day) but Mason's release looks quicker. The ball is out of his hand lightning fast and on a couple of red zone throws he nearly took the hands off his receivers fitting the ball into tight windows in traffic. He obviously lacks game experience, but it's looking more and more like SDSU's offense would be in very good hands if Mason were needed to run the show.

I didn't pay much attention to Mark Gronowski when he was in there, because we already know what to expect there. Fans are still obviously nervous about whether the Walter Payton Award winner is still going to be here in the fall, as Gronowski himself has made no official announcement. Do I expect him to be the Jacks' starting quarterback on Aug. 31 in Stillwater, Okla.? Yes.

Is there still a chance he won't be? I mean, if some school decides over the summer they need a QB and wants to offer Gronowski a million bucks in NIL money, it'd be hard to blame him for taking it. He'd a be a grad transfer, so the portal would not be part of the process. That said, watching Gronowski practice and interact with his teammates, he sure appears to be all-in.

Jon Bell, the 3rd string QB, appears to be improving, too, as coaches have repeatedly said. Bell looks quicker in his progressions and cleaner in his mechanics, though he did throw a pick-six (to Aydan Dautermann) in one live session.

And sophomore lefty Jeff Becker sure can run. He broke off a couple long runs on RPO keepers that got his teammates excited.

* The new O-line

The offensive line has three starters to replace (left tackle Garret Greenfield, left guard Mason McCormick and right tackle John O'Brian), with center Gus Miller and right guard Evan Beerntsen returning.

The Jacks used a couple different rotations on Saturday but it looks like right now Quinten Christensen is the starter at right tackle with Colby Christensen (no relation) at left tackle. Quinten, a 6-5, 290-pound sophomore, saw action as a sixth blocker last year so he was expected to step in as a starter. Colby, a 6-7, 295-pound senior, was hurt last year and did not appear in any games, though he saw action in eight games in 2022.

William Paepke, a 6-5, 290-pound redshirt freshman, and 6-3, 310-pound senior Jalen Lee, are splitting reps at left guard, while Ethan Vibert (Sr., 6-4, 305), Dawson Rudd (So., 6-5, 285), Ian Mutchler (RFr., 6-3 290) and Kenyon BigBow (RFr., 6-5, 305) appear to be the top backups.

* Obviously by now the plan to play a big rotation on the defensive line is permanent, and not just a neat quirk the Jacks use to take advantage of depth.

After graduating Caleb Sanders and Reece Winkelman in 2022, this year the Jacks move on from Cade Terveer, Quinton Hicks and Ryan Van Marel.

Saturday's rotation saw Levi Vanden Bos (Jr., 6-3, 245) and Zac Wilson (Sr., 6-3, 250) at D-end, backed by Nick Wells (RFr., 6-3, 235) and a couple others with unlisted numbers (sorry).

At defensive tackle, seniors Max Baloun (6-3, 285) and Jarod DePriest (6-5, 285) seem set as the starters, with sophomore Jace Sifore (6-3, 280) and redshirt freshman Bryce Hawthorne (6-3, 265) right behind them. Blake Petersen, the Iowa State transfer who was limited to six tackles and no sacks in seven games last year, did not practice on Saturday.

* They'll be just fine at tight end

The Jacks have become something of a 'Tight End U' with the players they've churned out at the position over the years, but they have almost no experience at the spot this year. That made tight end arguably the biggest question mark on the roster heading into the spring, but Rogers has sounded almost surprisingly confident in the group and I can see why.

Sophomore Brody Gormley and redshirt freshman Davin Stoffel appear to be tops on the depth chart. Gormley is 6-7 and Stoffel is 6-6, so they both have difference-making height, as well as impressive body control. Gormley is possibly best remembered for dropping a sure touchdown last year in the season opener, but that was a fluke. He has good hands and made a handful of impressive catches Saturday. So did Stoffel and Joey Neumann, a 6-4 redshirt freshman. David Alpers, the 6-6 sophomore from O'Gorman, was not in pads Saturday, nor was senior H-Back Kevin Brenner.

* In case you needed a reminder, the Jacks are loaded at safety.

Cale Reeder and Tucker Large will likely be the starters, but Dontay Johnson, Colby Huerter, Matthew Durrance and Noah Thompson give them insane depth. I thought I even saw cornerback Jalen B. Lee lined up at safety but that may have just been a different formation or dime package or something.

* Griffin Wilde and Grahm Goering are likely to be the starting X and Z receivers. Goering didn't practice Saturday, and Devon Cole, Kentrell Prejean and Elijah Ervin were the ones who saw the most action opposite (or behind) Wilde. Senior Marcus Preston also didn't practice Saturday but figures to factor in when healthy.

* The defense's propensity to run to the football is so strong. They just swarm. Whoever is in there.

* There are, not surprisingly with a new offensive coordinator, some new wrinkles on offense. I am not at liberty to say much more than that as of right now.

* The South Dakota State Spring Game is set for April 13 at 10:30 a.m. at the SJAC.