#5 North Dakota FCS Football 2017 Preview


North Dakota Fighting Hawks


Overall Rank: #5

#1 Big Sky

North Dakota had a breakthrough 2016 season. After going 5-7 in Coach Bubba Schweigert’s debut season as the Fighting Hawks head coach in 2014, UND boosted their win total to seven in 2015. And last year that number went to nine. The team lost their first two games of the year against Stony Brook and Bowling Green and then went on to win their next nine straight, including an impressive 8-0 mark in Big Sky play. The playoffs ended with a second round upset at the hands of Richmond, but this is a program that has quickly established itself as one of the best in the Big Sky. However, this is their last season officially as a member of the Big Sky.
2016 Record: 9-3, 8-0
2016 Postseason: FCS Playoffs
Coach: Bubba Schweigert (43-35 at North Dakota, 43-35 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Paul Rudolph
Defensive Coordinator: Eric Schmidt
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: John Santiago, RB, 983 yards
Passing: Keaton Studsrud, QB, 2,027 yards
Receiving: De’mun Mercer, WR, 553 yards
Tackles: Cole Reyes, DB, 70
Sacks: Drew Greely, DL, 4.0
Interceptions: Deion Harris, DB, 5
Other Key Returnees: RB Brady Oliveira, WR Travis Toivonen, WR Luke Stanley, WR Noah Wanzek, OL Demon Taylor, DB Torrey Hunt, DL Tank Harris, DL Brandon Dranka, K Reid Taubenheim, P Austin Dussold
Key Losses: OL Michael Coe, LB Dylan Bakker, LB Connor O’Brien, DB Zach Arnell, LB Brian Labat, LB Jawon Johnson, DE Noah Johnson
This is a team that will win games with their defense, but the offense has a ton of potential with nine starters returning. The ground game will be very strong with the return of John Santiago and Brady Oliveira. Santiago rushed for 983 yards and seven touchdowns, while Oliveira added 897 yards and ten scores. North Dakota will keep the ball on the ground quite a bit, but they do have a very experienced quarterback in Keaton Studsrud. He threw for 2,027 yards and 14 touchdowns with just two interceptions last season. As long as Studsrud occasionally makes a big play downfield and avoids mistakes, he is doing his job. De’mun Mercer will be on the receiving end of many of those big plays downfield. He caught just 28 passes last year, but averaged nearly 20 yards per catch. Travis Toivonen is the top possession receiver and Luke Stanley and Noah Wanzek are proven targets as well.
The defense suffered a major setback in July when Deion Harris suffered a season ending injury. The cornerback led the team with five interceptions last season. That leaves some sophomores Evan Holm and Torrey Hunt as the most talented cornerbacks on the roster. Having Cole Reyes at strong safety will certainly help cover for the loss of Harris. Reyes is one of the best players in the FCS. Last season he tallied 70 tackles and three interceptions. At linebacker there are some big holes to fill. Dylan Bakker, Connor O’Brien, Brian Labat and Jawon Johnson all started all 12 games last season and are now gone. Sophomores Keelan Poole and Jade Lawrence will be asked to get to the quarterback from the outside linebacker spots, while inside linebacker Donnell Rodgers will likely turn into one of the new stars on defense after tallying 38 tackles and 3.0 sacks as a freshman. The front three has plenty of experience with Drew Greely, Tank Harris and Brandon Dranka leading the way.
The Bottom Line:
North Dakota will look to exit the Big Sky on a high note. They will be an independent for a couple years before joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. They will still play Big Sky opposition for the next two years, but this will be their last shot at winning a conference title and earning the automatic bid to the playoffs. And unlike last year, North Dakota and Eastern Washington cannot both end up undefeated in 2017. The Fighting Hawks host EWU during the regular season finale on November 11th. That game could have massive playoff seeding and Big Sky title implications.
Projected Postseason: FCS Playoffs
2016 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 208.4 (21st in nation, 4th in conference)
Passing Offense: 177.8 (91, 11)
Total Offense: 386.2 (53, 9)
Scoring Offense: 29.6 (37, 7)
Rushing Defense: 91.3 (6, 1)
Pass Defense: 263.9 (107, 10)
Total Defense: 355.3 (40, 2)
Scoring Defense: 22.0 (23, 1)
Turnover Margin: 1.50 (3, 1)
Sacks: 2.33 (36, 5)
Sacks Allowed: 2.00 (63, 9)
HERO Sports 2017 Recruit Rankings:
#24 Ezekiel Ott
#205 Leif Bungum
#221 Mikey Griebel