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USD football seeing progress with its re-tooled linebacker core

Apr. 23—VERMILLION — One of the University of South Dakota football team's glaring uncertainties entering the offseason was how its linebacker position would look following the departure of senior all-conference players Brock Mogensen, Stephen Hillis and Brendan Webb.

The addition of some seasoned linebackers in the winter, followed by the efforts of the group during spring ball, has alleviated some of those worries.

"We've got experience back on the front line, we've got experience back in the secondary, we need that linebacker position group, with some new faces there, to be able to step forward," head coach Bob Nielson said following Saturday's spring game at the DakotaDome. "And I think those guys have made great progress all spring. I think it really showed up today in the scrimmage."

A critical position for any football team, Nielson stressed the linebacker group needs to be in sync come fall time because it operates as the brain of the Coyotes' defense, making all the checks and on-field audibles. Although USD is not heavily reliant on the transfer portal for building its roster, it was aggressive in the offseason adding linebackers to assure it has the personnel capable of filling those roles.

The Coyotes signed Nate Ewell, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior and NAIA third-team all-American linebacker from Grand View (Iowa). Last season, he anchored the Vikings with 51 tackles and four interceptions. Ewell was taking first team reps for USD during the spring game.

Also brought in was St. Thomas transfer Jonathan Bunce, who replaced Webb as the team's rushbacker. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound senior was a first-team all-Pioneer League player in back-to-back seasons, and had a team-best 63 tackles for the Tommies in 2023.

"Very experienced player," Nielson said. "A guy that's going to be able to do multiple things for us at that position."

Rounding out the trio of transfers was Wade Abrams, a 6-foot, 230-pound sophomore from Valparaiso, who made five starts for the Pioneer Football League program last season, and recorded 42 tackles.

Abrams' presence adds to a group of younger linebackers who received limited playing time last season, including Gary Bryant III, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound sophomore who returned from injury last year to play in seven games, primarily on special teams. If the spring practice was any indication, Bryant's role will increase dramatically this season, as he took regular snaps with the first team.

Other returners include Gabriel Hardman, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound redshirt freshman who appeared in six games last year and maintained his redshirt season, and Nyle Dickel, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior who recovered from injury and participated in both of the Coyotes' FCS playoff games last year.

Teven McKelvey, a senior listed as a defensive back, but plays more of a nickelback role, has worked closely with the group, and is pleased with their collective growth.

"The whole core of the linebackers were all older guys, and they were all starters. So we were all the (second stringers) when we were younger. So we've all communicated with each other for a while now. And we feel comfortable because we've been doing it for over a year now," McKelvey said.

Whether the new linebacker contingent can match the success of the group formerly led by Mogensen, a first-team FCS all-American, is a lot to ask. However, between the returners, and the transfers, the group appeared to gel well during the spring game, finishing tackles and staying in position.

Working behind a veteran defensive line, there's confidence the room can hold its own during the 2024 season.

"There's a lot of guys that they got to fill those shoes, and I'm really proud of them," quarterback Aidan Bouman said. "They've made our lives tough so far this spring, they've done a really good job of it. I'm really excited to see what they can do next year."