Jacks hope experience pays off in season-opener

The South Dakota State football team will kick off a season  full of high expectations Thursday. 

They are ranked No. 4 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll and are predicted to get second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

The Jacks will host the Duquesne Dukes at 7 p.m. Aug. 31. The Dukes were Co-Champions of the Northeastern Conference last season.

SDSU will return nine of 11 offensive starters. Highlighting the offensive returners are junior quarterback Taryn Christion, senior wide receiver Jake Wieneke and senior tight end Dallas Goedert. 

“Our offense is used to (pressure) and our defense is too and we got a pretty experienced team and we are going to use that to our advantage,” Christion said.

Christion won Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2016 after tying the single-season passing touchdown record with 30. Part of the reason he was able to win that award was because Wieneke and Goedert, both NFL Draft prospects, were Christion’s main targets.

“Success to them [Wieneke and Goedert] is through the team — but obviously the better they perform, the better their chances are at getting to the NFL,” Head Coach John Stiegelmeier said.

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Stiegelmeier said one player who has impressed him in fall camp is Skylar Cavanaugh, a freshman tight end from Vail, Arizona. He also said they were planning on redshirting him, but have decided to pull it.

Junior Tyler Weir will be the new starter at right tackle for the Jacks, filling the shoes of Nick Carr. 

Also on the offensive line, sophomore Wes Genant will take over the right guard position for Matt Clark. Clark, who started all 13 games last season, has been suspended for six games due to a failed NCAA drug test.

Defensively, the Jackrabbits return six starters. Sophomore linebacker Christian Rozeboom and senior defensive tackle Kellen Soulek both have taken on bigger leadership roles this season.

Soulek said this has helped him see the game differently.

SDSU returns everyone on special teams, including junior punter Brady Hale and sophomore kicker Chase Vinatieri as they expect to resume their roles on the field. 

Stiegelmeier said the keys to the game will come from the offensive side of the ball against the Dukes. 

“It will be a matchup of our offense and their defense,” Stiegelmeier said. “If we win the offensive battle, we will have a pretty good day.” 

After winning their conference last year, the Dukes will look different on paper this year. On offense, they have only five returning starters, which will be tough starting the season.

The Dukes lost their former starting quarterback, Dillon Buechel, to graduation. Buechel started for them the last four consecutive seasons. 

On the depth chart, the Dukes list sophomore Brett Brumbaugh as their starting quarterback. However, they also have graduate transfer Tommy Stuart on their roster. Stuart transferred to Duquesne from Boise State, where he played 12 games in two seasons. 

Stiegelmeier says he expects the Dukes to play Stuart. 

“Their quarterback is a graduate transfer, so he’s a veteran, and he graduated in four years so he’s a smart guy,” Stiegelmeier said.  

Duquesne lost their top two receiving leaders in Wayne Capers Jr. and Blair Roberts. Capers had 959 yards last year and scored nine touchdowns. Roberts had 47 catches for 782 yards and scored eight touchdowns. 

The running game will not be much different this year for the Dukes as they return sophomore running back A.J. Hines. 

Hines led the Dukes last season with 13 touchdowns and 1,291 rushing yards, which set a Duquesne freshman record. Hines was ranked 10th in the country in rushing yards, named to First Team All-NEC and earned NEC rookie of the week ten times last season. 

Hines was the 2016 FCS Jerry Rice Award Winner, which recognizes the top FCS freshman player. Christian Rozeboom was also on the watch list for that award. 

On defense, the Dukes lost their three-time All-American and all-time sack leader in Christian Kuntz. 

Senior inside linebackers Nathan Stone and Carter Henderson led the Dukes on defense last year and are projected to do the same this year. Henderson made 90 tackles and Stone made 73 tackles. The duo of linebackers accumulated 15.5 tackles for a loss last season. 

Redshirt junior Abner Roberts returns for the Dukes as a defensive back. Roberts was fourth for the Dukes in total tackles with 59 tackles and one interception. 

Another key returner for the Dukes’ secondary is senior defensive back Malik Shegog. Shegog finished the year with 23 tackles and led the Dukes with two interceptions. 

The game starts at 7 p.m. Thursday at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings and will be televised on Midco Sports Network and ESPN3. The game will be broadcast on 90.7 KSDJ with coverage starting at 6:30 p.m.