GRAND FORKS -- With the University of North Dakota football program having a rare off day Friday, Aug. 16, the UND football mailbag returns:
Q. Does true freshman quarterback Tommy Schuster look the part?
A. Schuster has had a good camp for a rookie quarterback. He’s a little short (5-11) and his motion is unique, but he’s made up for that with football savvy and athleticism. He moves well in the pocket and puts the ball in the right place. He's a solid prospect, but he's also got a lot to improve.
Q. Do we have next year’s QB on the roster?
A. No. UND loses Nate Ketteringham and Andrew Zimmerman after this season, and I don’t see Noah Grover or Tommy Schuster as the starter in 2020. At the very least, the staff is going to have to bring in a transfer to compete with those two.
Q. What’s the deal with Caleb Nelson?
A. The prized recruit and brother of UND safety Leonard Nelson IV has sat out all of fall camp. He’s in Grand Forks and has watched from the sidelines every day. His issue is NCAA eligibility, and I think the coaching staff believes he’s got a chance to be given the green light before the season starts.
Q. Who are your surprise breakout candidates on both sides of the ball?
A. On offense, I’ll go with freshman guard Kyle Hergel and wide receiver Brock Boltmann. Boltmann has made a ton of plays at fall camp. On defense, I’ll say defensive end Jaelen Johnson. He has a great frame, and he's going to get the reps with the lack of depth there.
Q. How has the defensive line looked so far? Any of the true freshman making a push for the Two Deep?
A. The defensive line is the biggest defensive concern, but it’s difficult to say how they’re doing at fall camp because of the limited amount of full contact that takes place. It's probably good they're under the eye of defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt now, but we need to see them against a live test here.
I think fans will realize how important Austin Cieslak was to the 2018 defense. UND needs to find another Cieslak.
As for true freshmen, there’ll definitely be players pushing for the Two Deep. Isaac Moore has a chance to be really good, but it remains to be seen if that happens in 2019 or further down the road. He’s on the light side for a college end.
Elijah Beach will push to be the backup at nose. He’s coming to college at about 275 pounds so he’s got a nice frame to work with already.
Chandon Pierre came in with a lot of praise, but I haven’t seen enough quite yet to say one way or the other whether he’ll play in 2019.
Q. Which returning starters appear to have made a big jump in development?
A. That’s a tough one. I think Noah Wanzek and Travis Toivonen have had an extra gear this fall. Toivonen looks healthy again and ready for a strong season. On defense, I’d say Noah Larson is poised for a big year.
Q. Which players that either are new or didn’t play a lot last year will make an impact this year?
A. With help from the new offense, Cam McKinney, Mikey Griebel, Brock Boltmann and Alex Wilde have a shot to be difference-makers on offense. You could throw running back Austin Gordon in this mix, too. He’s moving better than he did all of last season at linebacker.
Q. Do you think this is the deepest team overall of the Bubba era? Team with the least amount of question marks starting the year?
A. I think that’s fair. They lose a lot of talent at running back with John Santiago and Brady Oliveira but there isn’t a ton of unproven talent otherwise. It's not to say UND is overly loaded with talent but we have a baseline of expectations, whereas UND has entered other seasons with much more mystery. Defensive line is really the only area where the program needs someone new to really step up.
Q. With Carl Engwall leaving, how are the younger ends looking?
A. Like I said earlier here, I’m really high on Isaac Moore out of Hanover Park, Ill. He’s only 215 pounds right now, but his athleticism pops at you. Jaelen Johnson, Ryan Schoenfelder and Graham DeVore, too, look more ready for playing time in Year 2 in the program. I’d like to see what Steven Keech can do out of Two Harbors, Minn., but he’s been sidelined with an injury all camp. He’s one big dude.
Q. Should we be expecting vastly improved special teams play?
A. I think so. The trio of freshmen are now sophomores and each improved in 2018 as the year went along. Brady Leach was 3-for-3 on kicks with a season-long of 43 in the season finale at Northern Arizona.
They’re also deeper at punter and kicker with Brady Stevens and Reid Sanders joining the program. Those two likely won’t start in 2019 but the Fighting Hawks didn’t have a safety net at all in 2018.
It hurts to lose John Santiago at returner, so that’ll be an area that’ll be interesting to see who emerges. There are tons of candidates right now. My bet is Evan Holm handles the most kicks and Mikey Griebel gets the punts. However, don’t sleep on true freshman Luke Skokna. His potential has the staff excited.
Q. What do you think about the freshman and sophomore quarterbacks? Are they good enough to step in if Nate Ketteringham gets injured?
A. I think they’re good additions for what you needed them to be, but as a program, I wouldn’t feel comfortable handing them the keys right now.
If Ketteringham gets hurt, Andrew Zimmerman has shown he has the ability to make plays at this level. You can’t say the same yet about Noah Grover or Tommy Schuster. I think that would be a mighty big ask in 2019.
Q. How’s Ketteringham and the new offense looking under the new OC? What’s the backup QB situation look like?
A. I kind of answered this in the previous question, but I think it’s clear Ketteringham is the top option in the group.
So far, Ketteringham has showcased what we know about him: he’s very athletic and strong-armed.
But we won’t know exactly what 2019 will bring yet in terms of feel for the pocket and protection. That’s impossible to replicate in a practice setting. It’s going to take live reps to determine if UND has improved from the passing game we all saw at Idaho and Northern Arizona. And that was a big woof.
Q. What is your prediction on the season record ?
A. 6-5. It’s so hard to say because we haven’t seen this particular version of the UND offense go live. I think seven wins gets UND in the playoffs, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility by any means.
But the start of the year is a beast, and I think there’s a few key positions where an injury or two could derail the ceiling potential of this team.
If you’re going to make the playoffs, you have to beat Drake and Sam Houston State to keep that hope alive.
Q. Thoughts on Freund's new offense a couple weeks into camp?
A. They certainly are completing a lot more balls during practice than in previous camps. Will that translate when the lights come on? I’m curious to see just as much as the common fan right now.
Danny Freund is sticking to what he promised: You’re going to see the short passing game be a major part of the offense.
Q. How has Jer Dominique looked in camp and what is his ceiling?
A. The defensive back transfer from Hawaii has shown nice signs. He’s more physical of a defensive back than most in the program right now, and he has a long frame at 6-foot-1. He’s taking reps at corner and safety, and I think they’re still learning where he’s most useful. I think the defensive back starters are Evan Holm, Hayden Blubaugh, Jordan Canady and Leonard Nelson IV. However, when UND needs to go into nickel packages, I’d bet he’s first on the field.
Q. How serious are the injuries to Noah Mortel and Izzy Adeoti and do you expect them to see action this year?
A. They’re both serious. Mortel seems a lot farther away than Adeoti.
I would be shocked if Mortel played in 2019.
Adeoti is a concern, too. He hasn’t been practicing live yet, and we’re halfway through fall camp. Not only is Adeoti not practicing, but his absence is giving more opportunities for players like Brock Boltmann, Alex Wilde, Mikey Griebel and Chrysten Cochran to gain the trust of the coaching staff.
I think Adeoti will play in 2019, but he has a long way to regaining his role in the offense.
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