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South Dakota State football: Can the Jackrabbits make it a three-peat?

Jan. 15—FRISCO, Texas — South Dakota State's second consecutive national championship was every bit as impressive and well-earned as its first, but it was not as dramatic.

Once the Jackrabbits class of sixth-year super seniors agreed collectively to return for the extra year afforded them by the 2020 pandemic, meaning almost the entire starting lineup from a national championship team would be back, the Jacks were treated as heavy favorites to repeat as FCS champions, and that's exactly what they did. SDSU ran the table at 15-0, answering every challenge and hardly facing a close call on their way to another title.

But the road to a three-peat will be a far tougher one.

The Jackrabbits graduate some major pieces, lost offensive coordinator Zach Lujan to the Big Ten and face a daunting 12-game schedule in 2024. Then again, the Jacks roster was so loaded this year their second stringers probably could've been a playoff team by themselves. The cupboard is not empty.

Here's an early look at where the national champs stand heading into next year.

We'll get to the quarterback situation in a second.

This offense has some big time pieces to replace. Isaiah Davis is gone to the NFL after a career that puts him in the discussion of greatest running backs in SDSU history (at a school that produced Josh Ranek, Zach Zenner and Pierre Strong, among many others, that's saying something).

Garret Greenfield and Mason McCormick will be forever linked as two of the school's all-time greatest offensive linemen, and right tackle John O'Brian was quite good as well. They're all gone. So are wide receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke, tight end Zach Heins and fullback Mike Morgan. That's half of a college football all-star team, all subtracted at once.

Mark Gronowski has two years of eligibility remaining, but the Walter Payton Award winner will have opportunities to take his talents to the FBS level as a grad transfer. Obviously much hinges on whether Gronowski returns, and obviously the Jacks are in much better shape if he does.

But if he doesn't, SDSU has a pretty good backup plan in place with Chase Mason. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound multi-sport star is one of the best athletes ever to compete in South Dakota, and was an FBS-level recruit coming out of high school. With an arm that produced a 90-mph fastball as a pitcher and feet that made him a 1,000-yard rusher in high school, there's not much that Mason can't do physically. He looked good in limited action this season. If he's not fully ready to run a college offense, he's close.

There are key returners at other spots.

Amar Johnson is the top remaining running back, coming off a career-year that saw him rush for 801 yards on 128 carries. Speedy Angel Johnson rushed for 381 yards and five touchdowns, averaging a whopping 8.9 yards per carry. Coach Jimmy Rogers has spoken highly of Kirby Vorhees, who had five carries this season, and the Jacks are bringing in two highly touted running backs as freshmen: Quin Renfro, who hails from the same high school as Davis, and Maxwell Wood, who had originally committed to North Dakota State before switching to SDSU.

At receiver, Griffin Wilde established himself as a future star as a freshman, catching 20 balls for 399 yards and six touchdowns. He'll be a focal point of the passing game next year. Grahm Goering will be back after catching 13 passes, while Marcus Preston, a 6-2 upperclassman who played in 11 games this year but was slowed by injuries, could have an increased role, as could returner Devon Cole. Jack Smith, the South Dakota high school player of the year, will come on board as a freshman after leading Lincoln to a state title.

Kevin Brenner should be able to fill the H-back role that Morgan had mastered, but tight end is a question mark. Judging by SDSU's recent track record, it seems a good bet someone will step up at that spot.

On the offensive line, Gus Miller returns as the No. 1 center in the FCS, while Evan Beerntsen was all-conference honorable mention at right guard. Quinten Christensen is penciled as a starter at one of the tackle spots, as he's been so impressive the Jacks created a role for him as a 6th blocker this year just to get him on the field. Jalen Lee, Ethan Vibert, Dawson Rudd and William Paepke all spent time on the two-deep this year, while Marcus Hicks, a transfer from Oklahoma (and the brother of Jacks D-end Quinton Hicks), should push for a prominent role.

Hunter Dustman will return as one of the Valley's most reliable kickers and punters.

Like the offense, there are some great players moving on. Linebackers Jason Freeman and Isaiah Stalbird were two of the most efficient and underrated players in the country. Saiveon Williamson was an all-conference caliber backup. They'll be hard to replace.

Cade Terveer was the Jacks' most consistent pass-rusher while Quinton Hicks' spectacular play in the postseason was one of the biggest elements to SDSU's dominant playoff performance. Ryan Van Marel, Brian Williams and Caden Johnson will also be subtracted from the D-line, and in the secondary, DyShawn Gales will try to join Jordan Brown and Don Gardner as recent SDSU cornerbacks to play in the NFL.

But the Jacks took pride in dominating with a 'no-name defense' — never relying too heavily on any one or two star players, and that bodes well for their future. The depth they've enjoyed during their 29-game winning streak should allow coordinator Jesse Bobbit's unit to remain an elite one.

Adam Bock returns at middle linebacker, hoping to stay fully healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. When he is healthy, no one in the FCS is better. Graham Spalding, Aaron and Adam Kusler, Bryce Johnson, Cullen McShane, Joe Ollman and Daeton Mcgaughy are all capable of being playmakers, while Caleb Francl and Chase Van Tol have shown promise in the hybrid nickelback role that Stalbird owned.

In the secondary, Dalys Beanum returns after picking off 11 passes over the past three seasons, while Myles Taylor and Jalen Lee played well this season and could have the inside track on the other starting cornerback spot. Steven Arrell, who missed much of this season due to injury, also has potential.

Rogers said multiple times this season that the play of his team's safeties was perhaps the most underrated aspect of the team, and they'll all be back. Starters Tucker Large and Cale Reeder were excellent this season and so were reserves Colby Huerter and Matthew Durrance. Dontay Johnson and Noah Thompson are youngsters who should make an impact as well.

And on the line, there isn't an obvious star returner, but that's a unit that has long thrived on depth. Zac Wilson, Max Baloun, Logan Green, Jarod DePriest, Jace Sifore, Aaron Wolfcale-Holsten, Levi Vanden Bos, Randy Keumogne and Dawson Ripperda are among those returning, while the Jacks will hope for more from Blake Petersen, the Iowa State transfer who ended up missing eight games this year to injury.

As good as the Jacks were this year, what they did wasn't easy. It never is, especially with the proverbial target on their backs being as large as it was. SDSU's players were expected to be virtually perfect all season, an impossible standard to live up to, yet they succeeded in doing it.

Next year will be harder. They open at Oklahoma State, a perennial Bowl team out of the Big 12, and will also travel to Southeastern Louisiana and host Incarnate Word before they start conference play.

Then the Missouri Valley Football Conference slate includes road trips to North Dakota State, North Dakota and Northern Iowa (as well as Missouri State).

North Dakota State retained most of their top talent after the coaching change from Matt Entz to Tim Polasek, while the USD Coyotes should return a strong roster after surprising the FCS ranks with a 10-win season. Surely the top teams in the Big Sky will be in the title hunt and there's usually a team or two that emerge as unexpected contenders from around the country.

SDSU will be right in the thick of it. This program has now made the playoffs 12 seasons in a row and been to the national championship in three of the last four. There's no reason to think that another trip to Frisco is out of the realm of possibility.