Coyotes eyeing league title and playoff berth

Coyotes eyeing league title and playoff berth
After winning an North Central Conference title in 2005 and reaching the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in 20 years in 2006, the South Dakota football team has designs on continuing that trend of success in 2007.

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 its final season of Division II football. In the 2008 season, the Coyotes will move into the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly DIAA).

Before it makes the move up a division, South Dakota has an 11-game 2007 schedule which ranks as one of the toughest in Division II. Beginning with West Texas A&M at Canyon, TX, on August 30, USD will face five playoff teams including three conference champions. USD's home opener is a Sept. 8 matchup with Winona State on Hall of Fame Day at the DakotaDome. Among the road opponents is Football Championship Subdivision (formerly DIAA) playoff team McNeese State at Lake Charles, LA, on Sept. 29. USD will host Western Washington on Dakota Day on Oct. 13. The regular season will end with a road game at Nebraska-Omaha and a home game with North Dakota, the two teams that tied for the NCC title a year ago and made the D-II playoffs.


"I am really pleased with how we looked and performed this spring," said Meierkort. "The effort was very good, but then our expectations are high," said Meierkort. "We return the bulk of our starters, but we must find a replacement for (All-American) Stefan Logan," 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. This fall, this team has to define itself. Every team has its own identity."

"These guys are mentally tough and have a proven record of fighting back and carry themselves well. The bottom line is that our program has no excuses. We want to win � period."

In 2006, the team will look to continue the success 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 again showcase an explosive 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.

On the other side of the ball, the Coyotes featured a rushing defense that finished fifth in D-II 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. 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 D-II with his 131.3 yards rushing per game ranking ninth. Logan, who left USD with 17 school records, finished third in D-II with 205.4 all-purpose yards per game. USD also lost All-American defensive back Jordan Davis (San Antonio, TX) along with five other seniors who played a big role

Players to Watch

Noah Shepard: Shepard became USD's starter midway through last season and threw for 1,938 yards (114 completion in 212 attempts) with 20 TDs, and 2,341 total yards. He ranks second all-time on USD's single-season totals in all three categories. Last season, Shepard, who also rushed for 403 yards, was named honorable mention on the All-NCC team.

Brooks Little: Little, a senior, is in his final year with the Coyotes. Last year, Little led the Coyotes with 47 receptions for 571 yards and two TDs. Little ranks third on USD's career receiving chart with 115 receptions for 1,620 yards.

Dion Foster: Foster comes to USD after transferring from the University of Wisconsin. Foster was Wisconsin's Scout Team Player of the Year in 2005. Foster has already garnered attention by being named Division II Preseason Newcomer of the Year by Lindy's Magazine.

Christian Morton: Last year, Morton earned All-American honors from three organizations and earned the Rimington Award as the top center in Division II. An All-NCC selection, Morton is one of four returning starters on USD's offensive front. He has already earned preseason All-American honors from Lindy's Magazine.

Blake Hojer: Hojer returns to his inside-linebackers' spot from a year ago. Last year, Hojer earned second team All-NCC honors. Hojer led the Coyotes in tackles with 65.

Justiss Scales: After transferring from Minnesota West CC last year, Scales recorded 49 tackles and earned second team All-NCC honors as an outside linebacker.

Position Breakdown

Offense

Quarterback: On offense, the Coyotes will be led by sophomore quarterback Noah Shepard (6'2, 210, sophomore, Thornton, CO). After earning the starting quarterback spot midway through the 2006 season, Shepard, who was an honorable mention selection on the All-NCC team in 2006, 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 D-II 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. "Noah is leaps and bounds ahead of last year, especially in terms of confidence. He has the ability to deliver the ball very effectively," said Meierkort.

Tyler Robinson (6'2, 208, redshirt freshman, Elkhorn, NE) is Shepard's back-up with Jacob Breske (6'0, 214, sophomore, Webster) listed No. 3 on the depth chart. "Tyler has shown great poise and he really throws a nice deep ball," said Meierkort.

Offensive line: Meierkort is optimistic about his offensive line, which should be one of the best in the league this season. The line is led by the return of All-American and Rimington Award winner Christian Morton (6'5, 286, senior, Norfolk, NE) at center. The Coyotes also return both offensive tackles, including Tim Schneider (senior, 6'7, 283, Adams, MN) and Nic Walters (senior, 6'5, 270, Parkersburg, IA), both of whom were named second team All-NCC in 2006.

Another key returnee on the offensive line will be guard Jacob Arthur (sophomore, 6'6, 304, Clark). Several players are vying for the other starting guard spot, including Ben Wampler (sophomore, 6'4, 295, Spencer, IA), who is also the backup center; Luke Nordquist (sophomore, 6'5, 276, Lake City); Jake Wilkinson (junior, 6'5, 288, North Platte, NE; and David Hedges (6'5, 300, sophomore, Colorado Springs, CO). Josh Shorley (sophomore, 6'6, 311, Watertown) is a backup at offensive tackle.

Wide Receiver: Wide receiver Brooks Little (6'2, 218, senior, Castlewood) leads a veteran group of pass receivers. Little is USD's leading returning receiver after accumulating 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. Aside from Little, USD returns Jordan Murphy (6'2, 198, senior, Aberdeen, 16 rec., 335 yards, 2 TDs), speedster Rico Hatter (6'1, 180, senior, Long Beach, CA, 11 rec., 345 yards, 31.4 avg., per catch, 3 TDs and three rushes for 84 yards), David Robinson (5'6, 152, senior, DeSoto, TX, five rec., 62 yards), Alex Perkowski (5'10, 176, junior, Hinsdale, IL, nine rec., 135 yards, 1 TD), Ben Oberle (6'1, 180, sophomore, Vermillion, 1 rec., 10 yards) along with two individuals that made a position change to wide out, including Dan Skelly (6'1, 178, sophomore, Champlin, MN) and Dominic Artis (6'2, 177, junior, Brooklyn Park, MN). Skelly had a big spring game with three catches for 56 yards.

Running back: In USD's storied football history, few players have had the impact of Logan. He is the only USD and NCC football player to compile four straight 1,000 yard seasons and he left USD as its career leader in rushing and all purpose yards. The Harlon Hill finalist averaged more than 130 yards a game as USD had a 32-14 record during his time on campus. Bidding to replace the All-American is a group of talented student-athletes. Amos Allen (5'10, 180, junior, Miami, FL), a transfer from Dixie State, heads into the fall camp as the No. 1 tailback. He rushed for 74 yards and a TD in the spring game. Meierkort also noted that Matt Lee (5'6, 149, sophomore, 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 (5'10, 177, Pierre) exhibited "signs of brilliance" during spring camp, said Meierkort. "He needs repetitions, but we like what we see." Perhaps the leading candidate to replace Logan is former Wisconsin recruit Dion Foster (5'9, 208, Robbins, IL). Foster, was the Wisconsin Scout Team Player of the Year in 2005. Three years ago, he was one of the top 80 running backs in the country.

Fullback: Meierkort noted that USD received good news when Tyler Evans (senior, 5'11, 251, Stewart, MN) received an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. Evans, who was an All-NCC selection in 2006, will be back in the fall as USD's starting fullback. "That was huge because we now have the league's best fullback coming back in the fall," said Meierkort. Newcomer Eric Harrington (6'1, 235, junior, Seattle, WA), will also contribute at fullback.

Tight end: Quality and depth are in abundance at the tight end spot with starter David Cronin (6'5, 243, senior, Holstein, IA) returning after recording four catches for 55 yards and a TD last fall. Also back will be Brandon White (6'3, 234, junior, Chester), whose only catch in 2006 was a critical TD in USD's overtime win against Northwood in a 31-28 OT verdict on the road last fall. Meierkort also noted that Mitch Mohr (6'5, 239, redshirt freshman, Genoa, NE) shined at tight end in spring ball. London Landry (6''3, 220, redshirt freshman, Lancaster, CA) is also in the mix at tight end. He is called by Meierkort as a "tweener" and similar to former Coyote Desmond Allison as someone who can block, catch and run.

Defense

Linebackers: On the defensive side of things,second-team All-NCC linebacker Blake Hojer (6'1, 237, junior, DeSmet) had a big spring. Hojer led the Coyotes with 65 tackles (33 solo) in 2006. He also had three sacks, eight tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. He is joined inside by Tyler Bergan (6'0, 226, senior, Grinnell, IA), who had 49 tackles, three tackles for loss along with a fumble recoveryand a blocked kick in 2006. Greg Mehrer (6'1, 211, redshirt freshman, Scotland) stepped up in spring practice and put himself in contention for playing time in the fall. Outside, second team All-NCC linebacker Justiss Scales (6'3, 218, senior, Columbus, OH) had 49 tackles, including 20 solo stops, six tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception and fumble recovery. Byron Thomas (5'11, 195, junior, Palmdale, CA, 31 tackles, three sacks), Tyler Spease (6'1, 196, junior, Rapid City, 49 tackles, quarterback sack), Alan Flyger (6'3, 221, junior, Hurley, three tackles) along with Martell Mabry (6'3, 185, junior, Bolingbrook, IL, eight tackles). Jim Williams (6'0, 201, Rfr., Alexandria) will also be in the mix.

Defensive Line: defensive lineman Ko Quaye (6'1, 302, sophomore, Brooklyn Park, MN, eight tackles, one sack) and Joey White (6'2, 274, sophomore, Crooks) had a strong spring practice on a defense that again looks to be quick, fast and physical. "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. Zach Johnson (6'1, 262, senior, Brookings), who had 21 tackles, including three quarterback sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2006, returns at defensive end along with John Morales (6'1, 254, senior, Martinez, CA), who had 38 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 quarterback sacks. Lawrence Curry (6'3, 220, sophomore, Tampa, FL), Andrew Jennings (6'2, 234, redshirt freshman, Red Oak, IA) and Abraham Booker IV (6'3, 253, sophomore, Bloomington, MN) will add strength and depth up front.

Secondary: If USD has some holes to fill off the 2006 team, it is in the secondary where USD lost seniors Tim Dacy, Chris Reid andAll-American Jordan Davis to graduation. 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 (5'10, 191, senior, Council Bluffs, IA, 25 tackles, one interception), and Ryan Routh (6'0, 213, sophomore, Sioux Falls, 18 tackles, interception) at safety and cornerback Travis Motley (6'1, 196, Bellevue, WA, 23 tackles, interception), Isaiah Dixon (5'8, 172, sophomore, Minneapolis, MN, four tackles) along with returning starter T.J. Simmons (5'8, 177, junior, Houston, TX, 54 tackles, two interceptions, four pass breakups). In addition, Meierkort noted that Justin Harper (5'8, 170, junior, Chandler, AZ, three tackles) has moved to strong safety (from cornerback) and Michael Bogan (5'10, 165, sophomore, Los Angeles, CA, five tackles) will also be in the mix in the defensive backfield.

Special Teams: Frank Leibfarth (6'4, 216, senior, Yankton) will be back in the fall. Leibfarth, who was a first team CoSIDA Academic All-American last fall, also become the first student-athlete ever named to the USA Today All-Academic Team. He connected on 11-of-18 field goals, including a game-winning 40-yard field goal in a 31-28 road win over Northwood in the first round of the D-II playoffs last fall. Leibfarth connected on 51-of-54 extra points and finished with a team high 84 points.

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