Over the next 12 days KBIA Sports will publish Darren Hellwege’s previews each of Missouri’s football opponents for the 2014 season. The previews will appear in the order of play.
Missouri v. South Dakota State University
Date and time: Aug. 30, 2:30 p.m.
Record: SDSU was 9-5 in 2013, making it to the second round of the FCS playoffs. This is the first meeting with Missouri
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
I don’t always start my pieces by talking about coaches, but I think guys like John Stiegelmeier help make college football great. He has 17 years at South Dakota State University and stands to become the Jackrabbits’ all-time winningest coach this season. He oversaw the school’s move to Division 1 (Football Championship Subdivision) and has taken them to the playoffs three times since, reaching the second round the last two years.
On to players. A 6-foot 5-inch senior with 20 starts under his belt, QB Austin Sumner leads the team. He’s battled injury problems over the years but has put up impressive passing numbers and taken two teams to the postseason. The number two will probably be Zach Lujan. An Alaska native, Lujan threw for 15 TDs and just four interceptions last year at Chabot (California) Community College. Both Sumner and Lujan have running ability as well.
Soph RB Zach Zenner, who ran for more than 2,000 yards the last two seasons, is a preseason FCS All-American. His value to the team was seen when they held him out of the spring game to avoid injury. Zenner can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Backup Reggie Gandy returns and freshman Bridgeport Tussler joins the mix. They have something in common — both Gandy and Tussler are former Minnesota high school players of the year. And if that wasn’t enough, redshirt freshman walk-on Brady Mengarelli may have forced his way into the mix with a strong performance in spring ball.
As one might guess given Zenner’s success, South Dakota State puts a special emphasis on offensive line play. They lose two four-year starters in All-American Bryan Witzman and Alex Parker, along with starting center Taylor Suess. Two good linemen are returning: RT Trevor Gregor, who has 16 starts over the last two years, and fifth-year senior Josh Kage, who brings a wealth of experience. But this is one of those programs that reloads its line. After the spring game OL coach, former Oklahoma Sooner John Flynn, said the team has “11 players capable of starting.” Missouri native Andrew Mueller (Raymore-Peculiar High School) may get starting nod at center. Travis Zimmerman transfers in from junior college powerhouse Iowa Western, and watch for Nick Carr to contribute—he won’t be hard to spot at 6-foot- 8-inch and 300 pounds.
Senior Jason Schneider makes for a big target at wideout, and led with more than 1,000 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns for the Jacks in ’13, making him the top receiver in the Missouri Valley Conference. The other top two receivers from 2013 graduate, but speaking of big guys, tight end Cam Jones also brings some size. Jones also brings some athletic ability and football knowledge, having played quarterback in high school. Also in the WR depth chart are Connor Landberg, who has size, good hands and can make tough catches; Jake Weineke, another big guy, and Dom Wright, a senior whose experience so far has primarily been as the Jacks’ kick return specialist.
Defense is the question mark for the Jacks, especially up front, where all four starting linemen from 2012 graduate. In the middle, Cole Langer is a fine athlete and SDSU legacy—his father played for the Jackrabbits and grandfather Jim went from SDSU to the Vikings and NFL Hall of Fame. KC native Auston LaBlance appears to be the other tackle. At around 250 pounds, LaBlance is probably not in the same league with the big run-stuffers Missouri will face in the SEC. That’s not the case with Langer, however, who was listed on the 2013 roster at 255. A source with SDSU informed me that he now runs about 285, about the same size as many of the Missouri tackles. Chicagoan Jack Sherlock is a senior team captain and redshirt senior looking forward to his first chance to start at end, with J.R. Plote on the opposite side. Observers from spring ball told me the starting line was adequate, but that depth is a major issue.
Discussion at linebacker starts with the top returning tackler (No. 2 for the team in 2013, as he was as a redshirt freshman in 2012) T.J. Lally. Lally’s a great all-around player and now that he’s a junior brings in experience as well. Jesse Bobitt stepped in and played well as a true freshman last year, and with Charles Elmore (who had 67 tackles last year) and Robbie Jelsma there’s some depth as well. A solid bunch, and Lally, who wears No. 33, is one you should keep an eye on. Forget conference, forget subdivision—T.J. Lally is simply one of the very good linebackers we’ll see in Columbia this year.
The secondary also returns some experience with starters Jimmie Forsythe and Je Ryan Butler at corner and Melvin Tavares and Jake Gentile back at safety. All showed skills at times last year, but like the defense in general were a little up and down in 2013, with some very strong performances and some not so impressive. Butler had two picks in SDSU’s win over Northern Arizona in the first round of the playoffs. There’s some depth as well, with freshman Freeman Simmons pushing for time at corner and Mark Pickerall among the safeties backing Tavares and Gentile. Worth noting: both Simmons and Pickerall will be coming home on Aug. 30, playing Mizzou on the same Faurot Field they played on occasionally as Rock Bridge High School Bruins.
One other point to worry about with the Jacks’ defense—like Mizzou, they know how to force turnovers. They forced 14 fumbles last season (recovering 11) and had 22 interceptions. Their 33-17 turnover ratio is a major reason they win. If the defense can force turnovers, their offense has the weapons to keep South Dakota State relatively close for a while. But the Jacks’ record of having never beaten an FBS team will remain intact and barring a complete breakdown the Tigers should easily win this season opener.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association