As the 2023 FCS season inches closer, HERO Sports will look at five offseason questions for the 2022 quarterfinalists.
The final one is South Dakota State.
SDSU finished 14-1 last year, winning its first FCS national title by beating North Dakota State 45-21 in Frisco. Here are five questions the Jackrabbits face entering 2023.
RELATED: South Dakota State Football 2023 Schedule
How does SDSU play as the hunted and not the hunter?
If SDSU wants bulletin-board material, it’s going to have to search the dark corners of fan message boards. Because they aren’t going to get much from FCS followers/media.
Expectations for the Jacks are to go 11-0 in the regular season, get the No. 1 playoff seed, and win a second FCS title. Right now, there is no clear 1b team to SDSU. Rival NDSU will get plenty of No. 2 preseason votes, but the Bison have a ton of question marks. Montana State will get some No. 2 votes as well, but it was overwhelmed in the trenches vs. SDSU in the semifinals.
SDSU brings back a majority of its two-deep. Frankly, no team will stand in its way if the Jacks stay healthy and play to their abilities every week. The schedule sets up nicely too with the toughest games being at home.
The Jacks will get little to no motivation from external sources. No one that covers the FCS is doubting them. After spending years chasing NDSU, the Jacks have now overtaken the Bison, beating them four straight times and winning decisively in Frisco. Now it’s NDSU and everyone else chasing SDSU.
How does SDSU play with a much smaller chip on its shoulder? How do the players avoid complacency?
The bulletin board will be quite blank. However, there should be plenty of internal motivation. Standouts like Jadon and Jaxon Janke, Mason McCormick, and Garret Greenfield all decided during the playoffs to return for sixth years after being recognized on Senior Day. They’ll want to go out on top. Having a first-year head coach may naturally create more focus in practices and in the weight room.
But this is new territory for an SDSU program that was in the shadows of its rival for a long time. With the spotlight and the hype and the pressure on them now, how do the Jackrabbits handle it?
Does the program look much different with a new head coach and young coordinators?
SDSU had one of the more experienced coaching staffs in the FCS over the last few seasons. Now, the Jackrabbits have one of the youngest coaching staffs in all of college football.
John Stiegelmeier retired after 26 years as head coach, and expected successor Jimmy Rogers takes over after serving as defensive coordinator. Stiegelmeier and Rogers are opposites in personality. Coach Stig was a soft-spoken, grandpa-like figure.
Rogers? How’s this for a quote in a 2022 ESPN story?
“Not hoisting the [Dakota] Marker. Don’t ask what that feels like because I’ve never done that. Not as a player or a coach. I let the other guys do that. I don’t want to be running to that and miss my favorite part … Watching [NDSU] walk off the field. Watching them have to leave that field knowing they have lost.”
Rogers brings an intensity and a football guy feel as the new face of SDSU football. And not only is he taking over for Stig, but he’s also taking over as the elder statesman on the coaching staff. Except Rogers is just 35 years old.
Yes, 35-year-old Rogers is now the oldest coach on staff. Second-year offensive coordinator Zach Lujan and first-year defensive coordinator Jesse Bobbit are both under 30 years old, playing for the Jacks in the mid-2010s.
There are also four new position coaches hired by Rogers.
With a young and new-look coaching staff, do the Jackrabbits look different at all on the field? From a style of play perspective, probably not a ton will look different. But discipline, penalties, week-to-week consistency, how the team reacts to in-game adversity, what they do in pressure-packed moments? Is there a noticeable change there?
With how experienced the roster is, and the top three coaches all being former SDSU players and climbing the coaching ladder in Brookings, this likely isn’t going to be a concern. But it is something to monitor in the first few games.
Podcast: SDSU Head Coach Jimmy Rogers
Who are the new leaders on the d-line?
Caleb Sanders was the best interior defensive lineman in the FCS. And Reece Winkelman was a veteran all-conference performer at defensive end. SDSU will have to replace both in 2023.
The Jackrabbits have developed great depth across its d-line, a difference-maker in becoming a national championship team. The unit helped the No. 1 FCS rushing defense last year, allowing just 88.1 yards per game.
Plenty of experience comes back with veterans like DT Ryan Van Marel, DT Brian Williams, DE Cade Terveer, and DE Quinton Hicks. Some of those returners now need to step into All-MVFC-level play in 2023. SDSU will face strong rushing attacks in the regular season and likely again deep in the playoffs vs. title contenders NDSU and Montana State.
Can the cornerbacks continue to improve?
Cornerbacks were a vulnerable spot for SDSU in 2021. The group made noticeable improvements last year as SDSU improved from 241.0 passing yards allowed per game to 185.9.
SDSU loses a starter in Malik Lofton. But DyShawn Gales returns after a First Team All-MVFC season. For how good SDSU’s front seven is going to be, opponents will have to attack the secondary. The cornerbacks will be tested often, so continued improvement for that group will be key.
Do the Jacks get good luck on the injury front?
As mentioned above, the only thing stopping SDSU may be injuries. And it’s something a team can’t really control. Sometimes a team just gets snakebit on injuries. But the Jacks have become a rare FCS program where it can lose one or two star players and still be elite.
SDSU didn’t have All-Americans like Tucker Kraft and Adam Bock at different lengths last year and were just fine. Isaiah Davis missed time in 2021. Mark Gronowski got hurt right away in the spring national title game and missed all of 2021. So SDSU hasn’t really had great injury luck in recent years. But they’ve overcome it through depth.
And their depth in 2023 is very, very good.
Gronowski is just a junior and has a 22-1 record vs. FCS opponents as a full-game starter. The Janke twins were the two leading receivers last year as All-Conference players and are back. Zach Heins is a 6-foot-7 target at tight end and is a past All-MVFC performer. The dynamic RB duo of Davis (arguably the best returning FCS RB) and Amar Johnson return behind the entire starting o-line. The defensive front seven will remain the best in the FCS, led by depth across the DL, 2022 leading tackler LB Jason Freeman, and the All-American Bock. DyShawn Gales is the top CB and is back. And SDSU has multiple returning safeties (Colby Huerter, Cale Reeder, Tucker Large) who have big-game experience.
It’s an absolutely loaded roster. So much so that one has to grasp at question marks about complacency, new coaching, and injuries.