UND football mailbag: QB race, new coach impressions, rising stars and more

Mar. 26—GRAND FORKS — With the UND football program at the midway point of spring football practices, the Herald asked readers to submit questions for Fighting Hawks beat reporter Tom Miller.

Q. The defense hasn't been the greatest over the past two years, particularly on third-and-long. Can you give us an optimistic outlook for that side of the ball for 2024?

A. If you're looking for optimism, I'd point to cornerback, where I've felt for the past couple of seasons that UND was going to be solid at corner eventually with the development of Antonio Bluiett and Jamal Dixon. This should be the season we see if that comes to fruition. What I didn't see coming, though, was also the emergence of junior college transfer Devin Hembry, who's UND's best corner as it sits today and a potential all-conference performer. I'm also curious about the emergence of Avery Scott, the Division II transfer who seems to have his hands on a lot of passes this spring.

Q. What is the mood/energy level like with the new coaches?

A. It's certainly different. Danny Freund was at practice for a long time, and he's a vocal, high-energy type personality. New offensive coordinator Isaac Fruechte is also vocal, but he's going to voice his displeasure from time to time more than the two coordinators before him. That's not a criticism, however. Perhaps it's even what the roster needed with new blood on the coaching staff. For what it's worth, the buzz — not just the on-camera fluff — is players are liking Fruechte's approach.

Q. Any defensive changes being made in scheme that you can see?

A. I haven't noticed any changes to scheme at practice. I think defensive coordinator Joel Schwenzfeier is willing to adapt personnel to opponents, and we have seen some of that since he took over. However, at spring ball, you're most likely to witness mostly the basics of the 3-4.

Q. Who of the recent North Dakota graduates or Grand Forks graduates will see more playing time this year?

A. I've been impressed with the physical development of Fargo Shanley graduate Vuciri Hakim. He's putting on weight in his lower half and looks more like a football player than the basketball player who walked in Day 1. I would need to see more of his competitiveness on 50-50 balls but his ceiling at wide receiver is high. I'll also say there's something about wide receiver Sam Strandell of Grand Forks Central that you just can't count out a kid who's going to be a great teammate and work his tail off.

Q. Should we expect any big hits when the portal opens back up? It was closed prior to the Danny Freund news.

A. That's a legit concern. As I mentioned earlier, the rumblings are players have liked Fruechte and the culture being built in the program and in the weight room. Is that enough anymore? It's hard to predict.

Q. Who's flashing the most on both sides of the ball?

A. Tough question. The skill positions are always easiest to see flashy plays in a practice setting, so keep that in mind. The first players to come to mind for me are Lance Rucker on defense and Sawyer Seidl on offense. They maybe aren't putting together massive highlight films, but you see those two run around at practice and you can see they're oozing with athleticism and potential.

Q. Do we have our long-awaited savior at safety with Tyler Erkman?

A. The early signs are good for Erkman. He's bigger than some of the other top options in Cole Davis and Jett Sutton, and he's making some plays. He had a big interception on Jerry Kaminski during the live portion of last Saturday's practice. With that said, I'm also not counting out any of the other safeties, especially Sutton, who's making the strides you'd want to see in a young player.

Q. Which position group do you have the most faith in? The least?

A. As for the most faith, I think the inside linebackers are in good shape with the depth there. They have Malachi McNeal and Wyatt Pedigo to start, with experience in Kason Kelley who will get plenty of time. They also have the right mix of up-and-comers being allowed to develop behind those three. Ethan Boll, Jace Boswell and Owen McCloud are all on nice paths for young players. Hayden Stec was also moved from outside to inside, and we're seeing his path to success increase there.

As for the least faith, the defensive line loses Jeff Griffin, Jaelen Johnson, Barty Ogbu, Jake Saltonstall and Ben McNaboe from a unit that needed to get more production from it anyway.

That group needs new faces to emerge quickly, and probably needs help from the portal either way.

Q. Will Bubba Schweigert complete this newest contract extension? Is anyone excited about it?

A. There's undoubtedly a mixed reaction for the Bubba Schweigert extension to 2027. So is anyone excited? Yeah, I think Schweigert has a large base of faithful supporters. However, I recognize the growing disappointment in the program's plateau.

If UND finishes under .500 next season, that growing disappointment is going to get even louder, although UND is pretty committed to Schweigert at this point financially. UND isn't going to buy out multiple years of the deal.

I think it would take consecutive under .500 seasons to really wonder if UND was willing to part ways. If I had to put my money on it, I think Schweigert is able to finish out the years of this deal and the program is boosted by a new weight room, new locker room and new coaching offices.

Q. Who do you think wins the starting QB job?

A. Right now, Trey Feeney has the advantage. You can tell he has more years of college football under his belt than Jerry Kaminski. I do expect that gap to tighten as Kaminski's exceptional physical tools come to light as he gains comfortability. I've always anticipated Kaminski's escapability to be a major factor in this decision, and that's something that's hard to gauge unless you're seeing a live defense.

Feeney's maturity and body language are fantastic, and that'll be tough to knock off his spot.

It's also worth mentioning Simon Romfo doesn't look willing to just hand those two the job. The Langdon-Edmore-Munich product battles every play, and he'll make you constantly question your pecking order during practice.

Q. Who will be an impact player from the transfer portal?

A. This is maybe a bold claim considering we've barely seen him practice due to what appears to be a minor injury, but I'll go with Upper Iowa linebacker John Butsch.

The outside linebacker has a strong build, moves well and has a long reach.

Valley City State's Riley Gerhardt doesn't do much on the eye test, but he has a natural knack to be involved in every play. We've yet to see enough of Louisville safety Dan Martens and Air Force tight end Aiden Behymer to say they're going to be major difference-makers.

Q. What underclassman has the greatest chance to make an impact on the team this season (offense and defense)?

A. I'll pick darkhorses rather than more obvious candidates like linebacker Lance Rucker and wide receiver Korey Tai.

On offense, I'll go with 6-foot-6 sophomore offensive lineman Liam Becher. He's running with the starters at left tackle right now.

On defense, I think Kaden Vig out of Hallock, Minn., is a candidate to break out. If you've read my newsletter, you know I'm high on Vig, who's now at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds after putting on about 30 pounds his rookie year.

Q. How will Tommy Schuster do at Michigan State? Does he have a real chance to be their starting QB?

A. The assumed starter at Michigan State is Aidan Chiles, who transferred in with the new coaching staff from Oregon State, where he saw a partial role as a true freshman last season.

Schuster constantly outperformed my expectations in Grand Forks, so he'll probably surprise us all and be relevant at some point in the season in East Lansing.

Q. Any chance UND goes to the portal at QB?

A. It's not out of the question, but I think between Trey Feeney and Jerry Kaminski, one of the two will step forward enough to not need to make a move at quarterback.

I will admit, however, after seeing one particularly poor practice at the start of spring ball, this portal thought crossed my mind. The offense has been much smoother since the first couple of practices.

Q. How will the new coaches make a difference, especially the strength coordinator?

A. It's still hard to say on Isaac Fruechte at offensive coordinator until we see him call a real game and see what type of players he's able to recruit and develop.

I think it's easier to see the impact of new strength coach Derek Stein. Players are talking highly of the new era in that part of the program. I don't think fans fully realize the potential this change could bring if players buy in to Stein.

Q. What has surprised you the most?

A. The one area you can really see UND's offense morphing under new direction is the usage of the tight ends. Jaden Norby and Quincy Vaughn have been regulars in the past, but Haydn Stay is starting to make plays in the passing game, as well. Stay, a 6-4, 255-pound sophomore from Princeton, Minn., was immediately pegged in recruiting as a key part of the future but we're just now starting to see signs at practice he's ready for an expanded role. Norby has been a fantastic blocker in the past, but he has the potential to break out in the passing game, too, with a strong summer.