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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Columnist Chris Kelly provides an inside look on the upcoming Great West Football Conference season

The Bottom Line -- 2006 Season Preview Part One
ly 31, 2006

The Bottom Line
By Chris Kelly

No one can blame the Great West for lacking off-season excitement as each of the last two years has provided significant changes to the conference makeup. And this year doesn't appear to differ either. Before the conference even came together for it's first season St. Mary's, the league's 7th member, dropped football. Last off-season, Northern Colorado announced it would bolt for the Big Sky at the end of the '05 season. But maybe the third time is a charm, right? That's because the news in 2006 appears to be positive for future of the Great West.

North Dakota State and South Dakota State are still looking for a conference affiliation for all sports, and the Mid-Con conference may fill that need. The conference has been in existence at the I-A level for 25 years and currently houses schools located primarily in Midwest Urban locations. It was announced back on June 28th that representatives from the Mid-Con would visit both Fargo and Brookings to decide whether to add the respective schools to the league. A school visit typically is a precursor to formal invitation. While nothing is in the bag yet, things look rosier for the Great West to continue with five members. The Mid-Con does not support football leaving the Great West as a perfect fit for all teams currently comprising the league.

The league, that at one time appeared to be only a band-aid, now looks like it could be one of the best conferences in I-AA for years to come. We'll continue to track developments throughout the 2006 season but in the meantime....here's a look into everything you need to know to get ready for kickoff....


Scouting the Players
The All-Stars
1.James Noble, RB, Cal Poly. It's not often that a sophomore headlines as the top player in a conference loaded with talent, but it's also not often a freshman rolls up nearly 1600 yards rushing over 12 games. What Noble did last season bursting out of obscurity (was anyone else talking about him heading into the start of the '05 season?) was nothing short of amazing. Perhaps because Noble's efforts, in part, carried his team into the second round of the playoffs as an injury forced the Mustangs to play a freshman under center. What can Noble do for an encore? It will be challenging considering he finished 4th nationally rushing and 2nd in yards per carry. But there is no denying he is a huge part of the Mustang offense and there is no reason to expect he won't be one of the national rushing leaders once again. Noble will be expected to carry the ball 20+ times a game again this year, which means he should rack up yards and with it have a legitimate shot at the Walter Payton award. It's scary to think he has three years of eligibility remaining.
2. Tony Kays, WR, UC Davis. Most media will consider Noble the conference's top offensive talent. And if that truly is the case, then the Aggies star receiver, Tony Kays, is nipping at his heels. Kays exploded last season breaking the single season reception mark by posting 93 in his junior campaign and finding his way onto a couple of national All-American teams. The near 8.5 catches per game was good enough to lead the nation. His 1215 yards were the most by an Aggie in a regular season. Kays racked up at least 125 yards eight times and had five games with at least 10 catches. He averaged 110 yards per game, 7th nationally. He regularly saw double and even triple teams last season but always found a way to get open. Kays relies on great hands, tremendous route running, and ability to understand holes in the coverage pre-snap to excel against the opposition. Josh Buchanan, who covers college football for a variety of sources, rates Kays as a potential 7th round pick at this point, but most likely a free agent at the next level. The only area the senior receiver didn't dominate the stats was touchdowns. He had just three, but expect that number to soar this season as his veteran quarterback looks for him often in key situations.
3. Jon Grant, QB, UC Davis. Jon Grant returns for his third season as the starting quarterback for the Aggies and expectations for the senior will be high. Grant comes off a season where he threw for nearly 2900 yards (265 per game) and 13 touchdowns. However, Grant's one downfall was the propensity to throw the interception of which he tallied 14. Six of those came in the first two games though, and 12 of them in the Aggies five losses. Over his first two seasons Grant has shown an ability to win the big game notably leading the biggest drive in school history in the Aggies defeat of Stanford a year ago. It's been in those biggest games that Grant has shown why Matt Dougherty, executive director of I-AA football, ranked Grant as the the #4 returning quarterback in I-AA this season. Grant has played as well as anyone at times, but it's been the untimely interceptions that kept him from the upper echelon of quarterbacks to this point. This year, however, everything is lining up nicely for the Aggie offense, which will translate into a big season for the to-be senior along with some broken records. In his third year as a starter Grant returns in complete control of the Aggies complex offensive scheme, (which means more than one can imagine) which blends nicely with an experienced offensive line and big time receiver. If Grant can minimize poor decisions at key moments this season, a national first team All-American honor is not out of the question, especially considering the competition he'll be facing.
4. Kyle Shotwell, LB, Cal Poly. Maybe it's fitting that Kyle Shotwell's profile follows that of a UC Davis quarterback. The Aggies have long made a living of cranking out intelligent, polished quarterbacks who moved onto play professionally. Cal Poly is now making a name for itself by dishing out dominant defensive studs who not only go onto to play professionally but also win the Buck Buchanan award, given to the nation's top defensive player. First it was Jordan Beck, then Chris Gocong, and this season it could be Shotwell. The senior took a backseat to Gocong's headlines last season by posting a monster season: 158 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 5 sacks, and 2 int's. In fact, according to Josh Buchanan, Shotwell is one of the top two pro prospects in the Great West Conference. Buchanan thinks Shotwell grades out as a 5-6th rounder currently, which means the Mustangs will likely keep their streak alive of seeing a defensive player drafted in April. The questions that then remain is not whether Shotwell will put up statistics worthy of winning the "Buchanan", but whether the voters pull the trigger on a Mustang for a third season in a row? 3-peat anyone?
5. Kyle Steffes, RB, North Dakota State. Kyle Steffes returns for his senior season and will be an instrumental part of what should be an explosive Bison offense. Entering 2005 Steffes was expected to be #1 back but with Cinque Chapman and Shamen Washington in the mix; his numbers could have fallen off. However, Steffes asserted himself early in the season putting a clamp down on the primary halfback role garnering a majority of the carries. In fact, he improved all his rushing numbers from 2004 rushing for 1,071 yards and 14td's at nearly 100 yards per game. His hands out of the backfield make him even more dangerous which is something scouts like about Steffes. He'll once again be the guy in the backfield for North Dakota State and the Bison will rely on him heavily to be successful this season.

Impact Players (Key transfers, position changes, return from injury)
1. Royal Gill, QB, Southern Utah. From Stephen F. Austin to Pima Community College to New Mexico State to Southern Utah. That is the road that Royal Gill has traveled for a shot to start this season for the T-Birds. Gill started at quarterback last season for NMSU throwing for 1930 yards and 11 touchdowns. Now he's in Cedar City and battling for a starting spot for SUU. Gill is not guaranteed to start in the T-Birds offense. In fact, Wes Marshall, who returns as the starter from a season ago, is back for SUU. His mobility and the fact he returns as the incumbent makes him #1 at this point. But Gill is a more accurate passer with a stronger arm and could really help open up the aerial attack. Worst case scenario this competition will really push Marshall. Either way, Gill will play and could have a big impact on this offense which should see significant improvement this season.
2. Travis White, WR, North Dakota State. The worst part of an injury that causes a starter to miss an entire season is the devastating affect it has on the team. The best part is a season later when the Bison realize that Travis White is back and will provide a major weapon to the offense. A season ago, White went down with an ACL tear and now he returns to solidify the receiving core for the Bison. In 2004, White, a second team all GWFC performer, racked up 776 yards and nine touchdowns. He should get to those numbers with ease this season.
3. Anthony Randolph, CB, Cal Poly. In his first two seasons as a Mustang Anthony Randolph has a solid start to his career as a pass catcher. The to-be senior had over 800 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. Last season, however, his numbers fell off drastically in part due to the arrival to super freshman Ramses Barden and Tredale Tolver. Guys like Randolph, however, don't sit quietly as they see their production diminish. Randolph switched positions this spring to corner and went out and won the starting job. Team players like Randolph who just find a way to contribute are guys you love to root for and no doubt he'll be a big piece of a great Mustang defense in '06.
4. Tyler Roehl, FB, North Dakota State. Travis White wasn't the only starter lost a year ago as Tyler Roehl missed the entire season with a broken leg. The hard hitting fullback is back now which will bring smiles to the face of Kyle Steffes, the Bison star runner. Along with Tyler Jangula, these two fullbacks provide a whole lot of muscle to make the running game that much more of a threat. Roehl is one of those guys that won't get many carries and won't get his name called much - he'll just deliver results.

Top GWFC Non-Conference Games
1. Cal Poly at Montana, Nov 4th. These two teams met twice last season and both proved to be epic battles, with each team winning once. This late season battle may give one of these teams a leg up on home field in the playoffs and the make them a favorite to win it all.
2. UC Davis at Youngstown State, Sept 23rd. The Penguins will get all they can handle in an important non-conference battle early in the season. Both teams should be ranked in the top 15 making this the top game of the week on Sept 23rd. Pay special attention to Aggies wide receiver Tony Kays when he's manned up by Penguin corner Codera Jackson. Both rank as two of the best at their respective position.
3. North Dakota State at Georgia Southern, Oct 7th. First year head coach Brian Van Gordor took over this spring as head coach of the Eagles and promptly pulled the option in favor of a multiple style offense. The switch in offense has returning players switching positions all over the field, notably quarterback Jayson Foster, who moves to wide receiver. Van Gordor better hope his offense, led by a young quarterback, gets in sync quickly before linebacker Joe Mays and company schedule a regular meeting in the Eagle backfield.
4. UC Davis at Montana State, Sept 16th. Before traveling to Youngstown State, the Aggies visit Montana State in their third of five road games to start the year. The Bobcats could enter the game as a home dog sporting a young defense and looking for quarterback Cody Carpenter to step in and replace departed Travis Lulay. This game has all the makings of a dogfight.
5. South Dakota State at Northern Iowa, Sept 16th. The Jacks face national champion contender Northern Iowa in the first ever game between the two schools. The Jacks running game should keep them in this one for a while, but the defense, which needs to replace seven lost starters, must have a stellar game. Panther quarterback Eric Sanders could be the best in the nation.
6. South Dakota State at Montana, Sept 9th. Yeah, it looked like a mismatch on paper last season until the Jacks hung in the full 60 minutes losing just 7-0. This year SDSU hopes the 1-2 punch of Watson/Koenig can out-duel Grizzly star Lex Hilliard on the ground.
7. Texas State at Southern Utah, Sept 23rd. It isn't until our 7th ranked non conference game that we have a Great West team as the host as the Bobcats travel to Cedar City. The Bobcats find themselves in a bit of a rebuilding mode after substantial losses including star quarterback Barrack Nealy. The Thunderbirds, a year more experienced, should provide a much better challenge than a season ago when they lost 42-12.
8. Southern Utah at Southern Illinois, Nov 18th. The great news is that the Saluki's are rebuilding their defense and lost a lot at the skill positions on offense. The bad news is that SIU returns Arkee Whitlock, (1513, 14 td's) whom Matt Dougherty ranks as the top running back in I-AA. He also has almost his entire line back, which should provide a stiff challenge for the T-Birds run defense.
9. North Dakota State at Stephen F. Austin, Sept 30th. The Bison own the Southland going 4-0 over the past two seasons and will look to run it to 5-0 against the `Jacks. SFA enters 2006 following a 5-6 campaign and should be improved this season but face a tough challenge when the Bison come to town in September. Keep an eye on safety Kendric Holman, one of the best safeties in all of I-AA. He'll be needed to make a few big plays to contain the Bison's big run game.
10. South Dakota State at McNeese State, Sept 30th. McNeese State has experienced a couple down seasons by their standards but this could be the season they bounce back. The Cowboys are loaded with experience on defense and should be better on offense. However, if the Jacks get some strong quarterback play, they'll have a better than average shot to walk away winners.

I-A, eh?
Typically I-A vs. I-AA amounts to nothing more than a blowout win for the team with more prestige, scholarships, and money. But the game is a great chance for fans to dream about playing with the big boys and maybe, just maybe, pulling off the upset of a lifetime. Last season UC Davis did just that sending shock waves across all of college football by defeating Stanford on their home turf, 20-17. The win was the biggest in school history and the biggest I-AA win by any team in recent years. This season Great West schools have gone from two I-A games to five. Is it someone else's chance this year? It's always nice to dream. (Ranked by "win-ability")

1. Cal Poly at San Jose State, Sept 23rd. Spartan head coach Dick Tomey reunites with his former University of Arizona defensive coordinator and now Mustang head coach, Rich Ellerson. Tomey may not be happy that the same "swarm" type defense that led his `Cats to prominence in the late 90's could be the same one that hangs an L on his new team. This game should go down to the wire.
2. North Dakota State at Ball State, Sept 23rd. The Bison and Redbirds meet for the first time in the two programs history in late September. Ball State is expected to be a middle, but more likely, bottom feeder of MAC conference. Even though BSU returns 10 starts offensively, including quarterback Joey Lynch (1993 yds, 18 td's), if the Bison defense plays flawlessly they could be in the game until deep into the 2nd half.
3. Southern Utah @ Florida Atlantic, Oct 12th. The final piece of the T-Birds schedule wasn't in place until late June and it was the addition of I-A Florida Atlantic. FAU, who enters their second full season in I-A, are picked to finish 7th in the Sun Belt. The Owls 15 returning starters should allow them to be more competitive at the next level this season, especially led by standout defensive lineman Jervonte Jackson. Still, the Owls probably couldn't beat most of the top I-AA programs which means Southern Utah, with a stout defensive effort, could hang in this game for a while.
4. Cal Poly at San Diego State, Oct 28th. Running backs Lynell Hamilton (890 yds, 9 tds) and James Noble. Lineman Antwan Applewhite (8.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks) and Chris White. Already some great battles to start thinking about in this game. The Aztecs probably have too much athleticism for the Mustangs but the one thing we've learned over the years: don't count this Cal Poly defense out. That's especially true as the Aztecs will feature an inexperienced offensive line this season. Can the offense generate enough points to actually keep them in the game though?
5. North Dakota State at Minnesota, Oct 21st. The Bison will have their hands full with a physical Golden Gophers team as Great West meets Big 10. Even though Minnesota appears to be in a bit of a rebuilding season, quarterback Brian Cupito and running back Gary Russell (if he can get eligible) will pose big problems for the Bison defense. A great experience for the Bison to be on the same field, but this one should be over fairly early.
6. UC Davis at TCU, Sept 9th. Of all the I-A teams listed above this Horned Frog team is the most talented. They return 10 offensive starters from an 11-1 team and one of most dangerous group of runners in Robert Merrill (943 yards), Aaron Brown (779 yards), and Jeff Ballard (314 yards). Be sure former Aggie linebacker coach (1986) and current TCU coach Gary Patterson won't let his team go without reminding them of what happened to Stanford. But also be sure he won't run up the score either. This won't be a Stanford repeat, not even close.

Honor Roll
Pre-Season All Great West Conference Team
Offense
WR Tony Kays, UC Davis, Sr.
WR Ramses Barden, Cal Poly, So.
TE Brett Johansen, Southern Utah, Sr.
OT Elliott Vallejo, UC Davis, Sr.
OG Mitch Erickson, South Dakota State, Jr.
OT Nate Safe, North Dakota State, Jr.
OT Mike Knight, Southern Utah, Jr.
C Stephen Field, Cal Poly, So.
QB Jon Grant, UC Davis, Sr.
RB James Noble, Cal Poly, So.
RB Kyle Steffes, North Dakota State, Sr.
FB Tyler Roehl, North Dakota State, So.

Defense
DL James Amos, UC Davis, Jr.
DL Justin Frick, North Dakota State, Sr.
DL Chris White, Cal Poly, Sr.
DL John Faletoese, UC Davis, So.
LB Kyle Shotwell, Cal Poly, Sr.
LB Joe Mays, North Dakota State, Jr.
LB Andrew Hoogeveen, South Dakota State, Jr.
DB Craig Dahl, North Dakota State, Sr.
DB Courtney Brown, Cal Poly, Jr.
DB Kenny Chicoine, Cal Poly, Sr.
DB Nevan Bergan, UC Davis, Sr.

Special Teams
K Parker Douglass, South Dakota State, So.
P Mike Dragosavich, North Dakota State, Jr.
RS Shamen Washington, North Dakota State, Jr.

Players of the Year
Offensive P.O.Y. - James Noble, Cal Poly
Defensive P.O.Y. - Kyle Shotwell, Cal Poly
Special Teams P.O.Y. - Shamen Washington, RS, NDSU
Super Sophomore - Stephen Field, C, Cal Poly

Racking up `Tackles' - For the first time since I have done an All-Conference team the offensive line was not made up of the traditional two tackles, two guard, one center format. I instead went with three tackles, a guard, and a center mainly because of the unbelievable depth of talent at the tackle position relative to guard in 2006. And the one guard on the team (Erickson) is moving over from tackle this spring. In no way does this suggest weakness at the guard spot, but the tackles are so much heavier in overall talent and have 4 or 5 guys that could be first team, including Kyle Skierski (UCD), and Adam Tadisch (NDSU) who were not included. I felt necessary to place the top talent on the line than try to fit into a tackle, guard, center breakout.

Up Next: Check back Wednesday/Thursday, August 2nd/3rd for Part 2 of the Great West pre-season preview - the Great West Roundtable will share their thoughts on the conference race, and I'll break down the conference race as well as provide team by team analysis.
Questions. Comments. Email: Chris at gwfcfootball@hotmail.com

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