Mustangs underrated entering 2016 season

MARSHALL – Football is back.

At all levels, practice is commencing and the games will begin to count over the next month. Southwest Minnesota State University opens its season at home against the University of Minnesota Duluth on September 1, while Marshall High School starts out on the road the following night in Jordan.

Nine other area games line the opening weekend schedule of high school football under the lights.

At the college level, SMSU was recently picked to finish seventh in the 16-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.

Personally, I feel that is too low.

I don’t buy that SMSU which tied for fourth a season ago will drop to seventh, two spots behind a team which it beat last season (Bemidji State University) and one spot behind a team with two fewer wins than SMSU last season (Northern State University).

The Mustangs are coming off an 8-3 record; their best season since joining NCAA Division II in 1995. The eight-win season also tied the 1990 team for the second-most wins in program history, only trailing the 1991 Mustangs that went 9-1.

Since Cory Sauter was named head coach in 2010, the key to the Mustangs’ offensive attack has been a strong passing game. That should be the case once again in 2016.

SMSU returns its signal caller in junior Blake Gimbel. In his first season as a starter, Gimbel led the NSIC by completing 66.4 percent of his passes, which set an SMSU single-season record.

Nearly a quarter of his 237 completions went to Nate Huot. Now a junior, Huot decided last November to focus solely on football over the offseason after being a two-sport athlete in football and basketball his first three years on campus. With two years of eligibility remaining, Huot is 10th in SMSU history in receiving touchdowns while sitting not far outside of the Top 15 in receptions and receiving yards.

In total, the Mustangs return their top seven receivers from a season ago.

In the backfield with Gimbel will be senior running back Ashanti Payne. Payne finished seventh in the NSIC with 771 rushing yards. His numbers came as a backup to Davontay Stevens, who was second in the conference with 1,066 yards. Those 237 carries will have to go somewhere, so look for Payne to have an even bigger season in 2016.

The key question for the offense will be along the offensive line. Of the four offensive starters the team lost to graduation, three of them anchored the offensive line.

The program saw a similar situation a few seasons ago, when it entered the 2014 season having to replace its entire starting line.

This time around, the Mustangs can lean on senior left tackle Grant Greenfield, who has started every game in the last two seasons.

The defense will have to replace five senior starters from 2015, including defensive end AJ Page. The DE Page finished his career third in school history in tackles for a loss (52), fourth in sacks (20.5) and ninth in tackles (276). He was named second team All-NSIC South in 2013 and 2015.

The linebacker group returns the services of senior Tyler Flud, who led the 2015 Mustangs with 85 tackles.

In the secondary, SMSU will look to replace Andrew McReynolds. McReynolds did not miss a game in his career and started 34 consecutive games over his last three seasons. He closed his career in the SMSU record book in interceptions, kick returns and punt returns.

Also gone from last year’s secondary are cornerback Donovan Woods and safety Jared Twedt.

The lone returning player in the defensive backfield is senior Caleb Leichtnam. In his first season for the Brown and Gold, Leichtnam tallied 77 tackles and led the team with four interceptions.

I may be wrong with my belief that SMSU will finish higher than seventh. That’s why they play the games, as the overused cliche goes.

Right or wrong, I’m going to enjoy these next few months. Football is back!

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