South Dakota State football: 5 areas to watch in spring practice

Mar. 4—BROOKINGS — When virtually the entire roster returned from the 2022 South Dakota State national championship in 2023, coming up with storylines to watch in spring practice was not easy.

That won't be the case this year.

The Jackrabbits have said goodbye to a virtual all-star team worth of talent since winning their second consecutive FCS title, so the spring practice season that marks the unofficial beginning of Jimmy Rogers' second year at the helm will have plenty of intrigue.

SDSU kicked off their spring workouts on Sunday and will conclude it with the Spring Game on April 13.

Here are five areas worth keeping close tabs on as the Jacks begin their initial preparations for a potential three-peat.

1. Is Gronowski back?

Walter Payton Award-winner Mark Gronowski is practicing with the team, set to return as the starting quarterback. All indications are that his intention is to remain a Jackrabbit for at least another year. But he could still leave as a grad transfer. He has two years of eligibility, and many have connected the dots between Gronowski and Northwestern. He's from the Chicago area and his offensive coordinator for the last two seasons, Zach Lujan, is now in that role for the Wildcats. The Northwestern head coach is former NDSU defensive coordinator David Braun. NIL money would be tempting.

All that said, Gronowski being in uniform for the Jacks right now is certainly encouraging. Expect clarity on his final status for the 2024 season sooner than later.

2. What about Chase Mason?

The former multi-sport star from Viborg-Hurley stepped into the role of QB2 last year and looked dangerous every time he took the field, rushing for 187 yards and three touchdowns and completing 16-of-27 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown. He should get the majority of the reps this spring and will be ready to step in as the starter if Gronowski isn't available.

Assuming Gronowski returns, expect the Jacks to devise some packages for Mason or perhaps an expanded role that can make use of his size and talents. He's too good to spend all his time holding a clipboard.

3. New playcallers

With Lujan gone, the Jacks will have their third offensive coordinator in the last four years. Offensive line coach Ryan Olson has had a tremendous impact on the offense since joining the staff in 2021 and seemed like the easy choice to replace Lujan as the primary playcaller. But the addition of quarterbacks coach Danny Freund, who spent the last several years as offensive coordinator at North Dakota, gives the Jacks another experienced offensive coach, one who should figure prominently in the gameplanning and play-calling.

4. Rebuilding the line

The Jackrabbits had what was undoubtedly one of the best offensive lines in FCS history in 2023. Gus Miller won the Rimington Award as the best center in the nation. Right guard Evan Beerntsen was honorable mention all-conference. Right tackle John O'Brian was a dominating presence, while the left side was incredible — guard Mason McCormick and tackle Garret Greenfield were both All-Americans who just crushed it at the NFL Draft Combine.

Only Miller and Beerntsen return in '24. That's a good foundation to start with, and 6-foot-5, 290-pound junior Quinten Christensen saw significant action last year that should give him an inside track on a starting role.

That still leaves two open spots that need to be filled. That competition starts now.

5. Who gets the ball?

Running back Isaiah Davis is off to the NFL, and wide receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke and tight end Zach Heins hope to follow him. That's roughly 4,000 yards of total offense the Jacks need to replace, in addition to underrated H-back Mike Morgan.

Amar Johnson has been electric as the secondary running back and should be a capable replacement for Davis, while Angel Johnson can help carry the load.

At receiver, Griffin Wilde is clearly a star-in-the-making after catching 20 passes for 399 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman, but if the Jacks don't get other pass-catchers to step up defenses will double-team Wilde whenever they can.

Grahm Goering shows promise at wideout and Kevin Brenner should be able to fill Morgan's role, but tight end and the third-and-fourth wide receiver spot are both open for the taking.