The South Dakota School of Mines football team will need to win more fourth quarters this season if the Hardrockers want to move up in the always strong Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
They'll especially need to do so against Colorado Mesa University Saturday in the season opener for both teams. Kickoff is slated for 1 p.m. on Dunham Field at O'Harra Stadium.
At this time last season, the Hardrockers fell to the Mavericks in Grand Junction, Colo., 36-33, in a game Mines led 30-21 heading into the final quarter.
Last season the Hardrockers lost four games by four points or less. In those defeats, Mines was outscored 68-41 in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been in a couple of really tight ones with these guys. We’ve had the lead or had a chance to get the lead in the fourth quarter,” Mines coach Zach Tinker said. “But they don’t give you points for game control. They give you wins and losses. I know that if we play better than they do, then we will win. If they play better than us, then they will win. We have to go out and play better.”
One way to win the fourth quarter is through experience, something that the Hardrockers have despite losing their best skill players.
Tinker said as coaches they are relying on fewer newcomers, so they have fewer question marks than they had a season ago going into that first game.
“We were playing so many players who I really just didn’t know. This year we’re not in that situation,” he said. “A majority of the players in the plan are a known quantity to us. We know what their strengths are; we know what their limitations are. We’re hopeful that means there will be fewer surprises."
Having a team like Mesa as your season opener will also open some eyes, Tinker said. Mesa was 7-4 last season, but have annually been among the top teams in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
“It got our attention when you play them the first week. You know what you are getting into,” he said. “You’ll have a good idea of where you sit. This is a team, in my experience, that if you are a little off, they will expose you. That is what you want. You don’t want to come out of that first week just patting yourself on the back like you have all of the answers, because that could be far from the truth."
While the Hardrockers have their entire offensive line back plus a starter from two seasons ago, they'll have to replace several skill positions that were as talented as any in the RMAC.
Getting the start at quarterback will be redshirt sophomore Spencer Zur. Junior Thomas Crease, who saw some action last year when Sullivan was injured, will play as well. Tinker said sophomore Toby Smith could get in some action by the end of the year.
Sullivan left Mines with 17 school records and was a first-team All-RMAC performer at the position.
Tinker said the quarterbacks are all trying to step forward, but he believes Zur has had the best fall camp.
“He has to do what he does well. I think that is probably the message that we have for all of our players — be the best version of you, don’t try to be something different. The rest should take care of itself,” he said.
In the back field, gone are Connor Silveria, who ran for 1,220 yards, including a NCAA Division II single game record of 425 yards against Adams State, and Kevin Thompson (313 yards).
"Toting the luggage,” a majority of the time will be transfer Ahmad Lewis, along with redshirt freshman Caleb Roth, redshirt sophomore Zach Hoopman (193 yards) and junior Korder Cropsey (182).
“I don’t have concerns at running back. The only thing I don’t know is, Ahmad is a pretty durable guy so far, but he hasn’t played a full game yet,” he said.
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Back on the offensive line are senior Jack Batho IV, juniors Quentin Galluteria-Soares (redshirted a year ago, started two seasons prior), Harris Irwin and sophomores Austin Roth and Grant Smith is back as a starter. Redshirt freshman Connor Smith will see some action off the bench.
“We’re leaning on those guys. We think it is a pretty good o-line, the best that we have had,” Tinker said. “We’re putting a lot on those guys. That’s probably the number one way to replace Jake, just by being better everywhere else.”
Zur won't have all-RMAC wide receiver Isiah Manley to throw to, but he has a plethora of receivers back with experience, including his brother, junior Collin Zur (16 catches, 229 yards).
Other receivers back include Ian Anderson (7, 84), Jacob Crist, Carson Hunt, Joe Luebbers (53, 728), Anthony Ullrich (29, 358) and Jermaine Williams, who, redshirted last year.
“We don’t have that star like we did last year (Manley), but we probably have more guys that if one guy has a bad day, we’ll get to the next guy,” Tinker said. “We have two varsity players at each of the receiver spots. That makes us feel good.”
At tight end will be juniors Ira Murphey (13, 124) and Matthewl Dietz (8, 82).
On defense, the Hardrockers return several from last season, led by the strong linebacker crew of Justin Broekemeier (71 tackles), Will Carroll (79), Cole Peterson (47), all starters last season, and Chris Counce, who was injured last season but started the previous two.
Newcomer Malek Jackson will also see some time at linebacker.
The Hardrockers return an experienced defensive secondary, led by Steven Nolasco (40 tackles), Adrian Eastman (56 tackles, two interceptions), and Dominic Jackson (53 tackles, seven interceptions).
Newcomers Chandler Callejo and Kendall Johnson also have game experience.
“Probably the biggest difference last season is the only guy who had played was Dominick Jackson,” he said. “Now we have six guys back there who have played in games, and played well in games.
Up front, Kyante Christian, Bryan Akunna and Francisco Dicochea III return, with newcomers Marwin Alapati and Gavin Chaddock.
“We’re pretty disruptive up front. We’re not overly big, but we’re disruptive,” Tinker said. “We need to be active. We’ll play a lot of guys up there."
On special teams, Enis Sefa (9-of-13 field goals) returns as one of the top placekickers, while Mines will go with Casey Knutsen as the punter.
The Mavericks quarterback situation is very similar to the Hardrockers after losing Eystin Salum to graduation. Salum passed for 2,356 yards and ran for another 775 yards.
Expected to start at quarterback will be fifth-year senior Rope Ruel.
“They have a plan, and then they have a Plan B, and they have that other plan too. That is the nature of it. We both graduated very talented quarterbacks,” Tinker said. “I’m sure Russ (head coach Russ Martin) and I will have a few stories to tell when we see each other before the game."