HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs, with three teams being released each day from June 17 to July 28. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 1-4. Today, we present … North Dakota.
We'll leave no stone left unturned when it comes to giving the FCS diehards all they could ask for this offseason. Learn about every program in the country, with HERO Sports.
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Independent (UND went 4-4 against Big Sky opponents in 2018)
COACH: Bubba Schweigert – At School: 6th year (30-27) Overall: 9th year (51-47)
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: 2016 (Second Round)
2018 OFFENSE: 26.6 ppg (69th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 22.6 ppg (26th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Sept. 14 vs. Sam Houston State: Last year's win against SHSU (who was No. 5 at the time) ended up not helping UND's playoff resume because the Bearkats finished 6-5. But SHSU expects to be much better this year and are preseason ranked No. 20. There are a number of key games in the schedule this year for the Fighting Hawks, but we chose this one because UND and SHSU could be playoff bubble teams once again and head-to-head matchups are huge. This one is sandwiched between games at North Dakota State, at Eastern Washington and versus UC Davis, who are all legitimate national title threats. The Fighting Hawks need a win versus the Bearkats.
SUM IT UP: The Fighting Hawks have an extra sense of motivation this offseason. After starting the 2018 campaign 5-1 against FCS opponents, including wins at then-No. 5 SHSU and a 41-14 dismantling of then-No. 22 Montana, returning to the playoffs seemed like a safe bet for the team. But UND lost three of its last four games, two of which the Fighting Hawks were favored to win.
Sitting at 6-5, UND was one of the first three teams left out of the bracket. With eight returning starters on offense, six on defense and all three specialists back, the Fighting Hawks look to be a stronger team in 2019 and put themselves in position to reach the postseason.
The offense should get a jolt of energy after some struggles last season. While there were a number of injuries on this side of the ball, UND simply couldn't get things rolling offensively like it wanted to. Wide receivers coach Danny Freund was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason and is changing the system to a more up-tempo offense. He has plenty to work with as last year's starting quarterback Nate Ketteringham is back along with the top four pass catchers in wide receivers Noah Wanzek, Garett Maag, Israel Adeoti and Travis Toivonen.
Ketteringham threw for 1,835 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year while Wanzek is one of the more underrated WRs in the FCS. He hauled in 52 receptions for 685 yards and six touchdowns. Having a healthy Adeoti will be huge as his late-season injury resulted in a less-explosive offense.
A concern on offense is the depth at running back. UND loses two of the better running backs in school history in Brady Oliveira and John Santiago. The team also saw the departures of Otis Weah and Dominik London, who were expected to be key contributors this fall. Expect big things from 6-foot-1, 250-pound James Johannesson. He'll need to step up after being second on the team last year with 646 yards rushing and four touchdowns. The offensive line returns mostly intact and looks to be a strength for this team.
On defense, the top seven tacklers are all back on a tough unit that ranked 26th in the FCS with 22.6 points allowed a game. That's not easy to do against Big Sky offenses. Donnell Rodgers, Noah Larson and Jaxson Turner form a tremendous group of linebackers. In front of them, it'll be key to replace two big holes on the interior defensive line, but HERO Sports Preseason All-American defensive end Mason Bennett creates havoc for offensive linemen.
The secondary is another experienced bunch that has one big name to replace in Deion Harris. Evan Holm and Jordan Canady are two special talents back there who combined for 17 pass breakups in 2018 with Canady adding a team-high three interceptions.
OUR TAKE: As we stated above, the Fighting Hawks should be a stronger team this year. The question is will their record reflect it? UND has the toughest schedule in the FCS and opted to play 11 games in a 12-game season. If we put our handicapping hats on and look at the schedule right now on paper, the Fighting Hawks are favored to win five games: Drake, Idaho State, Cal Poly, Northern Colorado and Southern Utah. The SHSU game is 50/50, Weber State will probably be slightly favored and the Hawks are underdogs in the four other games. Of course, it's July right now and what happens on the field doesn't always match with what we see on paper.
The point is UND has a good chance to match its six wins. The challenge will be finding that seventh win, which means knocking off a strong, likely ranked opponent. A 7-4 UND team is a lock for the playoffs. A 6-5 record has the Fighting Hawks back on a packed bubble that will probably see a number of teams with 7-5 records. And then there's the whole discussion on if being a program without a conference hurts or helps UND. So to sum all that mumbo-jumbo up, the Fighting Hawks look to be a 50/50 playoff team once again. They need to beat the teams they're supposed to beat, which didn't happen late last year, and play their best football against six preseason-ranked Top 25 teams.
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COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Sr./DE Mason Bennett (HERO Sports 3rd Team AA, 42 tackles, 14 TFLs, 9 sacks, 7 QBHs)
THE FOUNDATION: So./LB Noah Larson (Jerry Rice Award finalist, 64 tackles); Sr./LB Donnell Rodgers (Top tackler with 72); Jr./DB Jordan Canady (3 INT and 7 PBUs); Sr./DB Evan Holm (10 PBUs); Sr./RB James Johannesson (Top returning rusher with 646 yards and 4 TDs); Sr./QB Nate Ketteringham (Starter last year, 158-289 passing for 1,835 yards, 16 TDs and 11 INT); Sr./WR Noah Wanzek (52 rec. for 685 yards and 6 TDs)
TOP NEWCOMER: Jr./DB Jeremie Dominique (Hawaii transfer, appeared in 6 games last year and had 4 tackles)
THE QUOTE: "Coach Freund has the leadership qualities that we are looking for to lead our offense in the future. His enthusiasm for the game is contagious and we look forward to putting his stamp on the offense which we believe will be an exciting brand of football that will engage our fan base and improve our football program." — Head Coach Bubba Schweigert said about new OC Danny Freund
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's UND Preview
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SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast