2019 Big Sky spring outlook
By CRAIG HALEY
(STATS) - An outstanding season in the Big Sky Conference last year deserves an encore.
National runner-up Eastern Washington, Weber State and UC Davis shared the title in the largest FCS conference and all three reached the national quarterfinals.
They finished in the top seven of the final STATS FCS Top 25 and could be headed back there with the other playoff qualifier, Montana State, which is suggesting its veteran squad is capable of far exceeding its No. 17 final ranking.
Montana, once the premier power in the conference, would love to get back in with the four playoff qualifiers.
Following is a look across the Big Sky with spring practices getting underway in college football:
HEAD COACH: Tim Walsh (56-58, 10 seasons; 173-140 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 5-6 overall, 4-4 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
SPRING PRACTICES: April 3-27
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (6 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The Mustangs have to replace quarterback Khaleel Jenkins, who was denied a medical redshirt for 2019 (part-time 2017 starter Jake Jeffrey, Kyle Reid and Jalen Hamler are in the mix) and FCS rushing leader Joe Protheroe (Trey Nahhas or Duy Tran-Sampson). The defense seeks improvement after ranking 11th in the Big Sky.
NOTABLE: Cal Poly had a nice rebound following a 1-4 start last season, but it's replacing a strong senior class. Senior J.J. Koski provides solid all-around production on receptions, carries and returns. Washington State transfer D'Angelo McKenzie, a free safety, will seek to be a difference maker.
HEAD COACH: Aaron Best (19-7, two seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 12-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)
SPRING PRACTICES: April 2-27
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 10 (5 offense/5 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: After reaching the FCS championship game, the Eagles have to replace key losses on defense, including middle linebacker Ketner Kupp and the two cornerback spots.
NOTABLE: The offense will be strong again after the line was fortified with center Spencer Blackburn and right Kaleb Levao gaining sixth seasons of eligibility. Opposing defenses have to stay honest against emerging quarterback Eric Barriere because of running backs Antoine Custer Jr. and Tamarick Pierce. In the Big Sky's unbalanced schedule, the Eagles won't play the other three 2018 playoff qualifiers - Weber State, UC Davis and Montana State.
HEAD COACH: Paul Petrino (23-48, six seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 25-April 26 (spring game is April 19)
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (8 offense/5 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: Despite the return of standout offensive tackle Noah Johnson, the Vandals have to get better in the trenches on both sides of the ball. In a conference with strong quarterbacks, they have to improve against the pass.
NOTABLE: Following a disappointing return to the Big Sky, the Vandals are feeling pressure to raise their game. Returning quarterback Mason Petrino and backup Colton Richardson will still battle for the position, and the starter will benefit from veteran receivers. But they have to identify the team's new primary running back: Roshaun Johnson, Andre Carter off a redshirt or Dylan Thigpen back from a knee injury.
HEAD COACH: Rob Phenicie (10-12, two seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-April 20
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 13 (7 offense/6 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: The Bengals were in playoff contention moving into November and want to finish off their first bid since 1983. To do so, they have to replace 3,000-yard passer Tanner Gueller, presumably with 2017 Idaho transfer Gunnar Amos. They also want to build depth in the secondary.
NOTABLE: There are plenty of offensive weapons, led by wide receivers Mitch Gueller and Michael Dean and running back Ty Flanagan. Rasheed Williams will return from injury to bolster the defensive line.
HEAD COACH: Bobby Hauck (86-22, eight seasons; 101-72 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 overall, 4-4 Big Sky (Tie/6th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 11-April 13
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 20 (11 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Despite returning a veteran starting lineup, the Grizzlies are seeking to build depth, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.
NOTABLE: Dual-threat quarterback Dalton Sneed played well during the Griz's up-and-down season, and he should be even better as a senior. Linebacker Dante Olson is coming off a school-record 151 tackles. Three straight losses to rival Montana State has led to the Griz missing the playoffs in three consecutive years.
HEAD COACH: Jeff Choate (17-18, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 8-5 overall, 5-3 Big Sky (Tie/4th)
SPRING PRACTICES: TBA-April 6
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 18 (10 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Quarterback sounds like an odd priority, but the Bobcats have a few good candidates to sort out. The plan is for Troy Anderson, an All-Big Sky first-team co-choice last season, to move back to linebacker as 2016/17 standout Chris Murray returns from a season off to compete with Tucker Rovig and Casey Bauman, who have stronger arms.
NOTABLE: The Bobcats surged into the playoffs with a three-game winning streak and beat Incarnate Word for their first postseason win since 2012. Running back Isaiah Ifanse is coming off a 1,000-yard season as a freshman. No returning Big Sky player had more sacks (8½) or tackles for loss (17) than defensive end Bryce Sterk last season.
HEAD COACH: Chris Ball (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 4-6 overall, 3-4 Big Sky (Tie/8th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-April 26
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (8 offense/9 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: After 21 seasons under coach Jerome Souers, the Lumberjacks are transitioning to a new coaching staff and offensive and defensive schemes. Ball was the defensive coordinator at Memphis the last three season.
NOTABLE: The Lumberjacks are anxious to get back fifth-year quarterback Case Cookus, who's had an injury-plagued career. He's part of an excellent senior class that includes All-Big Sky cornerback Khalil Dorsey. The road portion of the schedule almost seems impossible: Arizona, Illinois State, Montana State, Weber State, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah.
HEAD COACH: Earnest Collins Jr. (26-62, seven seasons; 34-74 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 2-9 overall, 2-6 Big Sky (11th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 19-April 20
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (7 offense/7 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: New offensive coordinator Nick Fulton will be implementing his system. The Bears are making it a point to get bigger in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
NOTABLE: Injuries to key players impacted UNC's disappointing season. Top cornerback Marshaun Cameron never made it to the field and quarterback Jacob Knipp suffered a season-ending injury for the third straight year, but both will be back this season (the NCAA gave Knipp another season of eligibility). The defensive returnees include linebacker Luke Nelson, the team's leading tackler.
HEAD COACH: Bruce Barnum (16-29, four seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 4-7 overall, 3-5 Big Sky (Tie/9th)
SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 20-March 16
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (9 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: The Vikings are going through their earliest spring practice. Rutgers transfer Jalen Chatman has been added to the quarterback mix with junior returners Davis Alexander and Jalani Eason. Although the defense was improved last season, the Vikings need to replace linebackers Kasun Jackett and Houston Barnes.
NOTABLE: An upset at Montana that ended a 17-game losing streak against Division I opponents highlighted a season in which the Vikings were much improved despite being relatively young. Senior Charlie Taumoepeau returns as one of the top tight ends in the FCS.
HEAD COACH: Troy Taylor (first season)
2018 RECORDS: 2-8 overall, 0-7 (13th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 26-April 27
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (7 offense/8 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: New offensive and defensive schemes are being installed in the spring. Taylor will call the offense, while former Northern Arizona defensive coordinator Andy Thompson will run the defense.
NOTABLE: Kevin Thomson is one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Sky when healthy. He is back along with three other players given NCAA waivers: defensive end George Obinna, place-kicker Devon Medeiros and offensive guard Wyatt Ming. The Hornets have arguably the hardest conference schedule with their eight opponents going a combined 40-23 in the Big Sky a year ago.
HEAD COACH: Demario Warren (16-18, three seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 1-10 overall, 1-7 Big Sky (12th)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 20-April 13
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 11 (5 offense/6 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: After dropping from a standout 2017 season, including a share of the Big Sky title, the Thunderbirds are going back to the basics this year. They need improvement with blocking, tackling and execution.
NOTABLE: The T-birds went through three quarterbacks last season, with Tyler Skidmore finishing the season after an injury to season-opening starter Chris Helbig (the other QB, Aaron Zwahlen, won't be back). A strong run game comes first, though, if a healthier James Felila combines again with fellow senior running back Jay Green Jr.
HEAD COACH: Dan Hawkins (15-9, two seasons; 127-70-1 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 10-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)
SPRING PRACTICES: Feb. 11-March 8
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 14 (9 offense/5 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITIES: There are big losses on defense, especially in the secondary with Vincent White and Isaiah Olave graduating. Also, the wide receivers have to fill at least some of Keelan Doss' production.
NOTABLE: The Aggies had terrific health throughout last season, when they earned a share of the Big Sky title and reached the FCS playoffs (beating UNI) for the first time. Big Sky offensive player of the year Jake Maier's new No. 1 receiver is junior Jared Harrell, and senior tight end Wesley Preece is among the best in the nation. Running back Ulonzo Gilliam's 17 touchdowns led FCS freshmen.
HEAD COACH: Jay Hill (36-26, five seasons)
2018 RECORDS: 10-3 overall, 7-1 Big Sky (Tie/1st)
SPRING PRACTICES: March 13-April 13
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (9 offense/6 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: It's pivotal for the Wildcats to replace key players on defense, including leading tacklers LeGrand Toia and Landon Stice at linebacker. Quarterback Jake Constantine seeks to cut down on interceptions.
NOTABLE: Running back Josh Davis and wide receiver/kick returner Rashid Shaheed are big-play standouts who will take pressure off Constantine. Despite the defensive losses, defensive end Adam Rodriguez and Jonah Williams form an excellent tandem. The 'Cats will play a pair of FBS opponents, San Diego State and Nevada, in their first three games.
HEAD COACH: Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert (30-27, five seasons; 52-48 overall)
2018 RECORDS: 6-5 independent
SPRING PRACTICES: March 1-April 12
PROJECTED RETURNING STARTERS: 15 (8 offense/7 defense)
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: An at-large playoff bid fell apart after a 5-2 start last season. Schweigert wants crisper play this season, including fewer turnovers (16) and penalties (56.2 yards per game).
NOTABLE: UND will play another Big Sky schedule as an independent before joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. The schedule includes trips to both 2018 national finalists, North Dakota State and Eastern Washington. Running backs Brady Oliveira and John Santiago are big losses, but James Johannesson should handle the No. 1 role (he had 462 yards in a three-game stretch last season).
Updated March 8, 2019