NCAA FOOTBALL: Mustangs back to practice

MARSHALL – The Southwest Minnesota State University football team, under the direction of fifth-year head coach Cory Sauter, begins spring practice in preparation for the 2014 season Monday at the Schwan Regional Event Center.

The Mustangs will conduct 15 practices/scrimmages during spring drills that will close April 26, with the annual Spring Game at the Schwan Regional Event Center.

SMSU will practice four times a week during the first three weeks of drills and twice the last week, capped by the Spring Game. Practices will be held with weekday afternoon sessions starting at 3:45 p.m., while the three Saturday practices will be held at various times.

The Mustangs have 71 players on their spring roster and returns 37 letterwinners from last season’s team, including three starters on offense, seven on defense and one on special teams.

The 2013 team recorded one of the best seasons in school history, finishing 7-5 overall, including a fourth place finish in the 16-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference with a record of 7-4. SMSU also played in the Mineral Water Bowl for the first time in school history, making its third postseason appearance overall.

Offense

The Mustangs return its starting quarterback and record-breaking running back from last season.

Senior Charlie Kern started every game at quarterback last season, completing 271 of 437 pass attempts for 3,156 yards and 33 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He also rushed for 460 yards and nine touchdowns. Kern’s passing yards, completion percentage and passing touchdowns all rank as the third highest total in single-season team history.

Senior running back Tyler Tonderum amassed the best season for an SMSU running back in program history. He rushed for a school record 2,145 yards (ranking second in the country), becoming just the 25th player in Division II history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season.

An all-american by five different organizations, Tonderum finished eighth in the voting for the Harlon Hill Trophy, which is awarded to the top player in Division II. He rushed for more than 100 yards in 10 games, including a school record 343 yards in win at Minnesota State-Moorhead. He set six school single-season records, including rushing touchdowns with 19. Tonderum also caught 34 passes for 289 yards and one touchdown.

SMSU’s third offensive returning starter is senior wide receiver Jordan Cross, who finished third on the team with 47 receptions, ranked second in receiving yards with 562 and third in touchdown receptions with five.

The Mustangs must replace an entire offensive line and tight end that had six senior starters last season, which helped set numerous school records, including rushing yards, total offense, scoring and touchdowns.

Defense

SMSU returns three of its top four leading tacklers from a season ago. Senior defensive end A.J. Page is a two-year starter and led the team in 2013 in tackles (109), tackles for loss (17) and sacks (seven). A second team All-NSIC South honoree last season, Page ranked third in the conference in both tackles and tackles for loss and finished seventh in sacks.

Junior linebacker Blake Pennock is also a two-year starter and last season ranked third on the squad in tackles with 87. Junior safety Jared Twedt finished fourth on the team with 82 tackles and ranked second with three interceptions, while also recovering a fumble and forcing one fumble.

The Mustangs have two starting cornerbacks returning after having solid seasons in 2013, both of which were named All-NSIC honorable mention. Junior Andrew McReynolds racked up 69 tackles, finishing second on the team with 50 solo stops and also had two interceptions. Junior Donovan Woods had a team-leading four interceptions and amassed 65 tackles.

On the interior defensive line, SMSU returns a handful of players who made starts last season. Senior Jacob Levtzow started seven games and had 18 tackles with two sacks, while senior Antwaun Phillips started eight games and finished with 34 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Senior Nathan Werner and sophomore Rakeem Felder combined to make six starts a season ago and combined to record 44 tackles with four for loss.

Special Teams

The special teams unit should be strong once again with the return of senior punter Mike Wenk. A second team All-NSIC punter in 2013, Wenk led the NSIC with a 42.8-yard average and ended the year with 13 punts inside the 20-yard line. A second team All-NSIC honoree in both 2010 and 2011, he missed the 2012 season with an injury. Wenk, who served as the team’s placekicker in 2011, connecting on 8 of 11 field goals and 33 of 34 PATs, will be one of several competing for that position this fall.

McReynolds led the special teams in both kickoff and punt returns a season ago, including averaging 19.7 yards per kick return on 47 attempts. Sophomore Jay Schneider finished second on the squad in kick returns with a 22.2-yard average per return.

The spring roster features 34 players on offense, 35 on defense, two kicker/punters and includes 14 seniors, 17 juniors, 22 sophomores and 18 redshirt freshmen. The offense has four quarterbacks, four running backs, 15 wide receivers, nine offensive lineman and three tight ends. The defense has six defensive ends, three defensive tackles, 13 linebackers, seven safeties and five cornerbacks.

SMSU will also welcome more than 40 players, who signed during the national signing day in February, which will join the 71-player roster when fall camp opens on Aug. 14. The Mustangs open the 2014 regular season with a conference game on Saturday, Sept. 6, at the University of Mary.