‘Very high expectations’

Football team expects to challenge for title

Skyler Jackson, Sports Editor (He/Him)

After coming up short in their hopes for a national championship the last two seasons, the South Dakota State football team is getting ready for the new season. 

Coming off playing 25 games across two seasons in 2021, the Jackrabbits lost the national championship game to Sam Houston in the spring and fell in the semifinals to Montana State in the fall.  

Expectations for the Jacks this season remain high. Coach John Stiegelmeier said that because of their recent success, winning the national title continues to be the goal.  

“We have very high expectations in our program,” Stiegelmeier said. “We finished with two seasons in ’21. And it set the tone, the spring did, to really believe, not just talk about winning a national championship. So that now is the goal.”  

SDSU ranks third in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches’ poll and is picked to finish second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. 

 This season could prove to be a challenging one for SDSU with many key players and coaches from last season leaving. Stiegelmeier said that was the team’s concern going into spring camp.  

“We lost four really good coaches, two to head coaching positions, and they each took a coordinator,” Stiegelmeier said. “But the spring went well. I feel like we made strides both as a team and as a coaching staff.”  

Among those four coaches leaving was offensive coordinator Jason Eck, who took the head coaching job at Idaho, and co-defensive coordinator Brian Bergstrom, who is now the head coach at Winona State.   

Zach Lujan, a former SDSU quarterback, will take over as offensive coordinator and will continue to be the team’s QB coach. On defense, Jimmy Rogers will take over as the team’s sole defensive coordinator.  

Along with changes to the coaching staff, many key players are also gone. Pierre Strong Jr., SDSU’s third all-time leading rusher, was selected by the New England Patriots in the NFL Draft. Other former team captains, like Wes Genant, Logan Backhaus, Don Gardner and Michael Griffin, all graduated.  

Despite all the changes to the team, the Jackrabbits still have a lot of key players returning this season. Key returners on the offensive side are all-American tight ends Tucker Kraft and Zach Heins, and receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke. 

Another important piece of the Jackrabbit offense is quarterback Mark Gronowski. Gronowski was SDSU’s starter during the 2021 spring season. He was the Missouri Valley’s freshman of the year, and he led the Jackrabbits to the national title game. In that game, he suffered a knee injury that kept him out the entire fall season. 

 On defense, the Jackrabbits are returning all-American linebacker Adam Bock, who led the team in tackles last season and had two interceptions. He is on the preseason watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, presented to the top defensive player in the FCS.  

“Missing a guy like Logan (Backhaus) is tough shoes to fill because he was always a big leader on our defense,” Bock said. “You’ve just got to step up and be that guy, keeping everybody in line and being that leader on the defense.” 

The Jackrabbits will also feature players who suffered injuries last season. Wide receiver Landon Wolff transferred to SDSU last season from Oklahoma State but got injured in their season-opener.   

Running back Isaiah Davis missed eight games last year before returning for the playoffs. With Strong gone, Davis looks to be the featured back of the SDSU offense.  

“Some of the things I learned from Pierre (Strong) my first two years is building me up for this position I’m in now,” Davis said. “I think right now, everything’s going good. I’m able to impact younger guys below me at a good level and am able to hold them accountable.”  

With fall camp now underway for the Jackrabbits, they look ahead to their season-opening matchup Sep. 3 in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes. This will be SDSU’s 12th overall matchup against an FBS opponent and fifth against a member of the Big Ten Conference. 

“Our guys, like all of our programs, I’m humbled by how hard they work in the summer,” Stiegelmeier said. “I feel good about our depth and looking forward to the year and looking forward to the Iowa game.”