South Dakota football focused on continuing winning ways

South Dakota football focused on continuing winning ways
After winning an NCC title in 2005 and reaching the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in 20 years in 2006, the South Dakota Football Team opened spring practice March 31 with designs on continuing that trend of success.

Coyote head coach Ed Meierkort, who has directed USD to a 27-8 record in three seasons, said the USD football program has big goals as the Coyotes head into their final season of Division II football. In the 2008 season, the Coyotes will move into the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly DIAA).

According to Meierkort, the prospect of success begins with hard work in the off-season and in the spring football session. "I am really pleased with how we have looked so far," said Meierkort, who noted that the spring game is set for Friday, April 27 at 7 p.m. in the DakotaDome. The Coyotes' next spring practice will be held at 4 p.m. on Monday at the USD practice fields, located east of the DakotaDome.

"We have seen vast improvement from day one to day four. While the weather has been somewhat of a headache, the spirit is high and our team has shown tremendous energy," said Meierkort, whose USD team finished 9-4 and was ranked 13th in the final American Football Coaches Association Poll in 2006.

"Overall, I am pleased with things," said Meierkort. "We aren't the same team that went to the playoffs a year ago, but we didn't expect to be," he said. "I believe we have the chance to be a very good football team."

As the Coyotes work out the cobwebs from the off-season, the team will try and find the magic that has been part of this program for three seasons. USD was 9-2 in 2004, 9-2 in 2005 and 9-4 in 2006. The Coyotes will try and show off an offense that finished fifth in the nation in total offense at 427.5 yards per game, including a rushing offense that ranked fourth in the country at 253.4 yards per game. USD also was 15th in scoring at 32.3 points a game. The Coyotes also featured a rushing defense that finished fifth in DII by allowing just 73.8 yards per game.

The Coyotes return 17 starters, including nine on offense and seven on defense. One of those seniors lost is a big one – All-American running back Stefan Logan of Miami, FL, who is preparing for an opportunity in the NFL. Logan finished his career as USD's career leader in rushing and all-purpose yards and remains the only player ever to record four straight 1,000-yard seasons in school and NCC history. Logan's 1,707 yards (6,896 yards in his career) a year ago ranked sixth in DII with his 131.3 yards rushing per game ranking ninth. He finished third in DII with 205.4 all-purpose yards per game. He left USD with 17 school records. USD also lost All-American defensive back Jordan Davis (San Antonio, TX) along with five other seniors who played a big role

From these early days of spring practice, Meierkort noted that the offense was picking up steam behind the play of Noah Shepard, a sophomore quarterback from Thornton, CO. After earning the starting quarterback spot midway through the 2006 season, Shepard finished with 114 completions in 212 pass attempts for 1,938 yards and 20 TDs. He also rushed for 403 yards in leading the Coyotes to the second round of the NCAA DII playoffs. He finished 12th in the nation with a pass efficiency ranking of 154.1. Shepard's passing yardage total ranks second all-time at USD with his passing TD total also second to Wesley Beschorner's 39 in 2005. In addition, Shepard finished with 2,341 yards in total offense (second all-time at USD) and his 180.1-yard average was fourth best in school history.

Meierkort noted the leadership of All-American and Rimington Award winner Christian Morton (Norfolk, NE) as well as returning offensive tackle Tim Schneider (Adams, MN). Wide receiver Brooks Little (Castlewood) has shined in the early going of spring practice. Little is USD's leading returning receiver with 43 catches for 571 yards and two TDs a year ago. He now ranks third on USD's career receiving chart with 115 receptions for 1,620 yards and 11 TDs.

Despite the return of nine offensive starters, the biggest question mark is filling the running back spot held by Logan the last four years.

"We can't replace Logan, who is perhaps the best running back in school history and one of the best ever in the NCC and in NCAA Division II," said Meierkort. "What we are looking for is someone to take the lead and try and help us offensively," he said.

Meierkort noted that Matt Lee of Oxnard, CA, has returned to school after a year away from the program. Meierkort says Lee looks confident and fast. "He has picked up where he left off two years ago," said Meierkort. Redshirt freshman Quincy Christie (Pierre) has shown "signs of brilliance," said Meierkort. "He needs repetitions but we like what we see."

Meierkort also noted that redshirt freshman Mitch Mohr (Genoa, NE) has shined at tight end in the early days of spring ball. He also pointed out that Ben Wampler (Spencer, IA) is pushing for time at the number-one (offensive) guard spot. He was also pleased with the work of Jacob Arthur (Clark). "He continues to get better and I believe Jacob will be a premier lineman in the league next season," said Meierkort.

On the defensive side of things, first-team All-NCC linebacker Blake Hojer (DeSmet) has started fast. Hojer led the Coyotes with 65 tackles (33 solo) in 2006. He also had three sacks, eight tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.

Second team All-NCC linebacker Justiss Scales (Columbus, OH) has also sparked the defense. In his first year as a Coyote, Scales had 49 tackles, including 20 solo stops, six tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception and fumble recovery.

Byron Thomas (Palmdale, CA, 31 tackles, three sacks), defensive lineman Komm Quaye (Brooklyn Park, MN, eight tackles, one sack) and Joey White (Crooks) have had strong starts on a defense that again looks to be quick, fast and strong and deep. "White looks good. He is strong and physical and gives us a second nose guard," said Meierkort. "Before next season we want to have two nose tackles and four tackles on the defense front and right now we are nearly there," he said.

If USD had some holes to fill from a year ago, it is in the secondary where USD lost seniors Tim Dacy, Chris Reid and Davis.

However, Meierkort noted that USD had a lot of depth on the defense a year ago playing as many as 24 players on defense.

The rotations last fall included significant play by both Joel Gentile (Council Bluffs, IA, 25 tackles, one interception), and Ryan Routh (Sioux Falls, 18 tackles, interception) at safety and cornerback Travis Motley (Bellevue, WA, 23 tackles, interception), Isaiah Dixon (Minneapolis, MN, four tackles) along with returning starter T.J. Simmons (Houston, TX, 54 tackles, two interceptions, four pass breakups).

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