The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology football team saw both ends of the spectrum last season, winning five of its first six games, but dropping its final five contests.
As one would expect, that left a bit of a sour taste with the Hardrockers and has provided plenty of motivation for the upcoming season, the second in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference for the program.
The Rapid City Journal sat down with second-year head coach Zach Tinker and talked about the Hardrockers for 2017 and what he looks for going into the season. Fall practices officially begin for Mines on Monday.
“As a coach, you draw a lot of stuff on the board and watch a lot of video, and you have these ideas of what you want to do,” Tinker said. “Until you work with your kids out on the field and see what they can do, what we know as coaches is pretty irrelevant; it’s what we can teach. We talk about simplicity and consistency in what we do; let’s not try to re-invent football. Evaluate and make sure our best guys impact the game. Last season we didn’t finish. We need to make sure our best players are having an influence at end of the games.”
Here’s a preseason prospectus from Tinker and a look at each position:
Defensive back: Tinker believes the Hardrockers have made some strides in the defensive backfield and may have the most talent that they have had at one time since he has been with the program.
Among the returnees include seniors EJ DeVeaux (49 tackles) at cornerback, Triston Brown (49 tackles) at safety and Isiah McGuire (27 tackles) at cornerback and sophomore Harrison Beemiller (73 tackles, one pass interception) at safety. Freshman Markuen Vilson is a transfer that could see some time as well.
“When you look at the defensive backfield, the pieces are there; they just haven’t all played together yet,” Tinker said. “It will be interesting to see how they come together with their communication; how they handle those things."
A key for the defense will be takeaways. Tinker said last season the defensive backs got their hands on a lot of passes, but not as many interceptions as they would have liked.
“I don’t have all the numbers on missed opportunities in the backfield, but it was almost one a game,” he said. “That could have made a big impact on our game if we got those turnovers.”
Linebacker: This area of the defense is one the Hardrockers have some experience in, but it is an unknown experience.
Back this season include junior Chris Counce (83 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery), seniors Jake Fitzgerald (63 tackles, one fumble recovery, two quarterback sacks) and Wyatt Houso, with senior Blake Stone (nine tackles) moving from the secondary to linebacker and senior Troy Kurtz returning after missing most of the 2016 season. Incoming freshman Antujuan Rodriguez is also expected to challenge for playing time.
“That position has the most unproven result now on defense,” Tinker said. “Thankfully Coach (Taylor) Breitzman coaches the LB’s, because they are going to need it. It’s an area where we need to play well at linebacker. We need to stop the run, which is phase A on defense. I’m watching that position closely.”
Defensive line: Tinker said they have added some good players on the D-line and the depth is there.
Three transfers that will make an immediate impact include juniors Carlton LeFrance, J.J. Banks and Brendan Washington. Returners include seniors Michael Harlan (40 tackles, one forced fumble) and Alvin Aneke (28 tackles), junior Jake March (19 tackles) and sophomores Andrew Montoya (eight tackles) and Adrian Perez (32 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery).
“That is the group that has to provide protection for the linebackers in the run game,” Tinker said. “They have to stay healthy. At times last year we got banged up inside. We need that group to be healthy and productive.”
Special teams: The Hardrockers are solid with their placekicking game behind junior Robbie Jo Gerarden (five field goals, 51 extra points), who was recently named the top Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference preseason kicker. At punter, that’s a different story with a newcomer taking over the role.
“I think Robbie is poised for a really big season; he is stronger than he has ever been,” Tinker said. “Last spring we noticed he had more leg strength, so we are very confident in Robbie Jo.”
“We’re unproven at punter, so our first order in business is to not punt much,” Tinker added with a smile.
Redshirt freshmen Jared Stangler and Patrick McDonaugh, along with true freshman George Johnson will vie for the spot.
“They have the ability, but are unproven. They just haven't been out there,” Tinker said.
Quarterback: The high octane Hardrocker offense all starts at quarterback. Junior Jake Sullivan, who missed a couple games late with an ACL injury, is back running the show. Sullivan, a second team All-RMAC performer last season, was the 2017 first-team RMAC preseason quarterback. He completed 154-of-234 passes for 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran the ball for 478 yards and eight scores.
“From all that I heard from him and everybody else, he is healthy,” Tinker said. “He’s been here all summer with player-practices, working hard and putting in the time. From a communication, timing and rhythm standpoint, I think we are further along than any other time.”
Tinker will have three freshmen looking to be Sullivan’s backup — Nick Zell, Christian Singleton and Thomas Creese.
“I’m confident that one of them will step up and be a clear-cut next man up,” Tinker said. “It will be a strong position. We’re not as veteran as we were last season, everyone is an underclassman. But I like where it is going.”
Running back: Likely the real strength of the offense, Tinker said, comes from who is going to carry the football. Seniors Dorian Cowart (831 yards, seven TDs) and Kevin Thompson (222 yards, three scores) are back, with Thompson returning from an injury that forced him to miss much of last season (he played in three games). True Freshman Brandon LaBrie and Presho’s Korder Cropsey should also be battling for some playing time.
“Dorian and Kevin are two of the better players on our whole team. They are poised to have really good seasons,” he said.
Receiver: Just who will Sullivan be throwing to? Other than a couple of returners, that is a big question mark. At least going into the season.
Senior Isaiah Manley (30 catches, 442 yards, six TDs) is the top receiver back, with sophomore Ian Anderson (three catches, 70 yards, one TD) also returning. The ‘Rockers have also added speedy junior transfer Jermaine Williams, who looks to open up the field. Transfer Edensky Lormeus could also see some some playing time.
“To say we have a bunch of guys who have a bunch of catches, we don’t,” Tinker said. “We have guys who have been here doing the work this summer and we’re excited to see what they have developed into.”
Offensive line: If healthy, it's another strength of the team. But health and offensive linemen are always a question mark because of depth and the pounding they give and take each play.
Among the returners include juniors Robert Schrock, Jack Batho, IV, sophomores Griffin Facciano and Quentin Galuteria-Soares and seniors Kennan Mahler and Bryan Ortega.
“When we are right up there, it will be a strength. l want to have 12 offensive linemen that can play, but we aren’t there yet. You never feel like it is everything you want,” Tinker said.
Tight end: Tinker said they are in an really unique position as they brought in some players who have some length.
They include 6-foot-5 sophomore Darren Sroor, 6-4 freshman Matt Dietz and 6-4 Hunter Gutierrez. Also back is 6-3 senior Sam Vollmer.
“We have some good talent, so it will be interesting see how we find a way to use those guys. They are longer bodies that we haven’t had before, which is huge on special teams, and that is exciting,” Tinker said. “Sam is a combo guy, hybrid O-lineman-tight end guy. When we want to get big and physical, we bring Sam in and he does that. Sam always finds his way on the field.”