As the days count down to the start of the 2017 FCS season, we take a closer look at the subdivision's top conference, the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Each week will feature the top five returners in a position group in the MVFC.
Next up are the wide receivers. The Valley was stacked with standout receivers last season. But gone are Lance Lenoir, Anthony Warrum and Robert Tonyan Jr., all who are chasing the NFL dream. 2017 will see a new crop of down-the-field targets step into bigger roles.
5. Jalen Rima, Northern Iowa
Rima is poised for a breakout sophomore season after playing last year as a true freshman. He was a 200 and 400-meter high school state champion in Iowa and is a sprinter on the UNI track and field team. Rima is an absolute burner on the football field paired with good size at 6-foot-1. A Valley All-Newcomer Team selection, Rima was second on the team last year with 764 all-purpose yards. He caught 18 passes for 305 yards.
Rima is a big threat on special teams, returning 11 kicks for 342 yards and a touchdown and two punts for 94 yards and a touchdown. UNI began 2016 with senior Aaron Bailey as its dual-threat quarterback. An injury to Bailey resulted in sophomore Eli Dunne starting four games. Dunne, at 6-foot-5 and a more prototypical pocket passer than Bailey, is UNI's guy. Look for Rima to get more involved in the passing game in 2017.
4. Spencer Schnell, Illinois State
Another Valley All-Newcomer Team selection, Schnell was second on the team with 59 receptions, just behind standout Anthony Warrum's 60, as a sophomore after transferring from Ohio University. With Warrum gone, Schnell should become the go-to guy for Jake Kolbe along with Christian Gibbs. Warrum totaled 1,031 yards receiving last season. Schnell and Gibbs combined for 1,026.
Gibbs is 6-foot-1 while Schnell provides a presence in the slot at 5-foot-9. He is also one of the top returners in the MVFC. Schnell was No. 2 in the conference with a 10.4 punt return average and added 112 yards on six kick returns.
3. Darrius Shepherd, North Dakota State
Shepherd went from NDSU's second leading receiver as a redshirt freshman in 2015 to the team's top receiver in 2016. He hauled in 45 catches and five touchdowns and was sixth in the Valley with 642 yards. Shepherd is a dynamic target as the Bison hope to make some improvements in their passing game under new offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham. His freshman season saw him burst onto the scene midway through the year, highlighted by his performance against UNI where he only played the second half due to a lingering injury.
Shepherd caught three passes for 61 yards in the half with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the last one being the game-winner. His sophomore season also was highlighted by several explosive plays. NDSU utilizes him in the passing, running and return game. Bison wide receivers know they play in a run-first system, but if NDSU wants a more explosive passing attack, Shepherd should be in for a big year.
2. Malik Earl, Missouri State
An all-conference honorable mention player in 2016, Earl will be a three-year starter when this season begins. His numbers have improved each year. He led the Bears in 2016 with 41 catches for 534 yards. Earl ranked seventh in the conference last year with 4.1 receptions per game and eighth with 53.4 receiving yards per game.
Earl also led the team in receptions in 2015 and played in every game as a true freshman in 2014 with eight starts. Now a senior, the 6-foot-3 receiver hopes to move up the ranks as a top receiver in the MVFC. He'll have to do so with a new starting quarterback under center.
1. Jake Wieneke, South Dakota State
Not a shocker here. Wieneke returns as a senior as not just the top receiver in the Valley, but in the FCS. The 6-foot-4 matchup nightmare had 78 catches for 1,316 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The year before he had 72 catches for 1,472 yards and 11 touchdowns, which is a MVFC single-season record for yards. In 2014, he broke the SDSU single-season record with 16 touchdowns while being named the top freshman in the conference and the FCS.
Wieneke is already being talked about as a second day NFL Draft pick. His stock will continue to rise along with fellow senior and tight end Dallas Goedert. It also doesn't hurt to have the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year returning in quarterback Taryn Christion. Wieneke, the all-conference, all-American, you name it, is set to have a huge senior season.