Q. Has Tommy Schuster stood out or will we have a QB battle to begin spring?
A. I think Tommy Schuster has done enough to be the No. 1 quarterback to begin the spring. A year ago, I was critical of his throwing motion, and he still doesn’t jump at you right away when you watch him play. Over time, though, I’ve come around to see some of the things UND offensive coordinator Danny Freund has raved about with Schuster. He’s a calm competitor, and I think what separates him right now from the quarterbacks I’ve seen over the years is an ability to fit the ball into tight windows. For me, questions remain about Schuster in terms of his feel for the pocket and general athleticism but those questions probably can’t be answered until the bullets are live. Therefore, I see Schuster as QB1 in the spring season opener.
Quincy Vaughn really progressed from the start of fall to the end. Vaughn’s size, arm strength and recruiting reputation will make fans clamor for him every time Schuster has a setback. He’s not much of a scrambler (more of a power runner), but you can see where his height will allow him to stand tall in the pocket longer than the shorter Schuster. Where Vaughn still needs to improve is consistent accuracy, which just happens to be what Schuster excels at in practice so far.
Q. Which true freshmen have splashed the most?
A. Before answering this question, I’ll point out that in practice settings, it’s much easier for some position groups to stand out more than others simply because there isn’t live hitting for more than 90 percent of the practice time. If you’re a new inside linebacker, for example, I probably can’t tell yet if you’re good.
With that said, I’ll start with wide receiver. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to see Jack Wright, the rookie from Oklahoma, who’s the all-time touchdown catches leader in high school football history. He’s out with a knee injury but should have a chance to practice in the spring.
With Wright sidelined, I’ve been impressed with Bo Belquist and Marcus Preston. They’re very different types of receivers. Out of North Dakota Class B athletics in New Rockford, Belquist needs to pack on some weight, but he’s going to have a solid career. He reminds me of a Josh Seibel type, a receiver who’ll make the hard-nosed plays over the middle but also has some wiggle to make big chunk plays.
Preston, meanwhile, reminds me more of a Brady Trenbeath type. He already has a nice build and moves really smoothly.
I’ll give you three more names to provide some position balance. I’ve liked the size and athleticism of Easton Kilty (6-foot-6, 290 pound left tackle from Wisconsin) and Craig Orlando (6-3, 285 nose guard from Minnesota). Those two could provide some line depth early in their careers.
To finish, I’ll give you a preferred walk-on name: tight end Max Gunderson from Detroit Lakes. For a high school quarterback not yet on scholarship, he entered fall workouts with a pretty good tight end frame (6-4, 215).
Q. What do you know about the offensive line? -- D.B.
A. UND’s offensive line should be improved from a year ago. They only lose one up front with Patric Rooney at center. They bring back Matt Waletzko, Kyle Hergel, Ryan Tobin, Nathan Nguon and Donny Ventrelli, with Hergel moving inside to take over for Rooney.
That’s a pretty strong group of five, with Waletzko coming back off an injury and Ventrelli emerging as a strong starter. They’ve all bumped up weights, too, and I think that’ll be a good thing.
The question will be whether anyone can emerge to push those five.
I’d think the best candidates to emerge right away would be Nebraska freshman transfer Xavier Trevino, or redshirt freshmen Colin Lavell and Kyle Downs.
The true freshman offensive line class is really talented, too, but you rarely see a true freshman impact a team on the offensive line. Waletzko and Elijah Grady are the exceptions.
Q. Guy on offense/defense that you expect to play a big role that didn’t last year. -- AS
A. On offense, I’ll go Otis Weah. On defense, I’ll go Devon Krzanowski.
Weah, the prep standout from Moorhead, was out due to academic eligibility last fall. UND has options at running back with Dalton Gee and Luke Skokna but Weah could very well receive as many or more carries as those two. He’s a high-energy player who’s low to the ground and tough to tackle.
You haven’t heard Weah’s name mentioned a lot publicly in the last year by coaches and that’s mostly due to his previous uncertain academic status. With those issues seemingly behind him, Weah has great potential.
Krzanowski is the inside linebacker from St. Cloud State, which cut its program a year ago. Between Caden White and Krzanowski, those two will log a lot of minutes making tackles alongside experienced veteran Noah Larson.
Q. Is there a pleasant surprise position group? -- E.G.
Q. Compared to last year, do you see any group that you expect to take a significant step forward?
A. I’ll lump these two questions together. If I had to pick, I’ll say I like the tight ends more than I would have expected.
UND moved redshirt freshman Adam Zavalney from wide receiver to tight end, and I think that’s a good fit.
Zavalney showed last year in fall camp and practice that he’s a great target, especially for the jump-ball throw.
He came to Grand Forks as a walk-on from a North Dakota 9-man football team in Park River, one in which he played quarterback. By the end of the year, he was already on UND’s travel roster. To travel a kid who probably won’t play much in that season is a big hint at what the staff sees moving forward.
But it’s not just Zavalney there who’s had a good fall. Senior Derek Paulson will play a lot. Redshirt freshman Billy Riviere, who’s up to 6-3, 245, might, too.
Riviere was a big name when he committed out of Wayzata High School. But like most players, he flew under the radar in Year 1. He’s looking much more comfortable, and I can start to see what all of the recruiting love was about.
Q. How do the lines look this year? -- AS
A. I wrote earlier this offseason about the change in size for UND’s offensive and defensive lines. That’s probably the most notable change.
UND beefed up for a few reasons:
1) Offensively, they had slimmed down the year before to encourage a more athletic lineman. After struggling in short yardage, they changed course and added weight back.
2) They’re older. UND played quite a few freshmen and sophomores on the lines and college players typically make big weight strides in those early years.
3) UND is going to play its first season in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Hawks are changing from the Big Sky Conference and its high-flying passing attacks to the MVFC and the ground-oriented approach.
For some defensive examples, the jump in size is noticeable in players such as Elijah Beach at nose guard and Jaelen Johnson, Quintin Seguin and Luke Lennon at defensive end.
Q. How do you see the running back competition? -- SS
A. I’ve hit on some of this question already when talking about the potential impact of Otis Weah, but I’ll go a little further.
Let’s start with Dalton Gee, who has exceeded many expectations in the program. He maybe isn’t the home run hitter or pure power back, but he’s a little of everything and a valuable asset.
Luke Skokna is that home run back. He’s on the smaller side, but he’s going to have a big role this year. To me, it’s more of a matter of where that role takes place. Is he lined up in the backfield or is he spending a lot of time split out wide?
Weah is the darkhorse. Nobody wants to tackle him in practice settings. My gut instinct says Weah has a big year.
After that, UND’s deeper at tailback in those four-five-six spots than it has been in years.
-- Creighton Mitchell was a big get in recruiting. But he’s a really small back, so we’re going to need to see how good he is at breaking tackles and running away from guys.
-- Isaiah Smith is a recruit everyone is still learning about. He was hurt nearly his entire senior year at Benilde-St. Margaret’s. He was raw at the beginning of fall but made some big strides. At 5-10, 225, he could be a short-yardage option in the future.
-- Austin Clemetson is a transfer from Wyoming. He was a walk-on in Laramie and is for the Hawks. I’ll need to see more of him to get a feel for his ability.
Q. Any roster additions/deletions that you’re aware of? -- SS
A. No surprises there, at least not yet. And because we haven’t seen any deletions, there’s probably not room for additions.
UND, like every school right now, will have tough decisions to make when it comes to scholarships and eligibility. The 2020-21 season has basically been given a free pass eligibility-wise by the NCAA.
But I’m sure most schools won’t have the resources to pay for the scholarships of all of the incoming freshmen, as well as all of the super-seniors.
At one point during fall, I thought UND had one new wide receiver. I even asked wide receivers coach Sam King who it was … turns out it was punter Cade Peterson doing some emergency receiver drills in case UND is ever desparate on the road.
Q. Is there still an early signing day? -- S.H.
A. Yes, Dec. 16 -- a Wednesday -- will be the early signing period, where UND will sign the majority of the 2021 recruiting class.
Q. Any players on the team you can dust in the 40? -- T.N.
A. Seriously, probably not a single one. Bubba Schweigert and his bad hips could probably clock better than me.
Q. In a non-pandemic year, which position group would you most like to invite for Thanksgiving dinner? - J
A. I’ve got an old house and space is limited, so I’d have to say specialists.
Q. Which game do you think will be the coldest? - J
A. I’d have to think Illinois State on March 20 could be pretty cold.
But with UND not playing this fall, I’ve covered a lot of prep games. And with COVID-19 regulations, I haven’t been in press boxes. So if I can cover games outdoors in late October in Cavalier, I can handle Illinois (but I’ll still cross my fingers to be allowed in a press box).