After starting the season 1-2, the Dakota Wesleyan University football team ended the 2013 season as the hottest team in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.
The Tigers won seven of their final eight games, including three victories over teams that were ranked or receiving votes in the NAIA top-25 poll.
“We feel good about where we’re at and the steps that we’ve taken the last two years,” said Dakota Wesleyan head coach Ross Cimpl. “The question is, was last year a fluke? Was it just something that came up and we got hot at the end of the year, or is our team in a position to really compete for a conference title? I can’t answer that question. I’d like to say yes, absolutely. But it’s going to depend on what happens (during camp).”
The Tigers return six players on offense but have two major holes to fill from last season. Former quarterback Jon Bane threw for 2,330 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Bane and his favorite target Anthony Muilenburg, who caught 65 passes for 1,002 yards and 13 touchdowns, both graduated, leaving production that will need to be replaced.
“I think we have some good, young guys coming in. We have four quarterbacks who will be fighting for that spot,” Cimpl said. “I know everybody says that and in the back of their mind they have a guy in mind, but not one of these guys were here in spring. So, we really have four guys starting from scratch.”
The four players listed as quarterback for Dakota Wesleyan are junior Andrew Paulson, sophomore Luke Stephens, Austin Buysse and freshman Dillon Turner.
The Tigers will have a new offensive coordinator in Josh Kotecki. With the new personnel and the departure of its star quarterback, Dakota Wesleyan will look to senior running back Francois Barnaud, who was a first-team all-GPAC selection. Barnaud finished the season with a school record of 1,893 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“Not to take anything away from (the GPAC) coaches and their players, but in my mind, (Barnaud) is one of the best running backs in the country,” Cimpl said. “The thing about Fran I think is interesting is that he may have snuck up on some people and flew under the radar a little bit, but that’s definitely not the case this year. That’s something he knows and we need to be prepared for.”
Paving the way for Barnaud on the offensive line will be four returning starters, including a pair of second-team all-GPAC selections in junior Kyle Hencke and senior Jake Verry.
While the Tigers may have some holes on offense, they bring back nearly all of their top defenders. Dakota Wesleyan will have six of its seven leading tacklers back in the starting lineup.
“Defensively, we’re kind of opposite what we are on the offensive side. We have a lot more returners on the defensive side,” Cimpl said. “We graduated two D-linemen and one safety. Everybody else, for the most part, is back as a starter. Our linebackers are probably the heartbeat of our whole defense and maybe even our team sometimes. They are very good players.”
Junior Brady Bonte returns after totaling 89 tackles and nine sacks last season as he was selected to the first-team all-conference. His 20 tackles ranked him 11th in the nation. Seniors Jeff Maassen (60 tackles) and Anthony Cervantes (53 tackles) and sophomore Adam Bormann (55 tackles) make up the rest of the linebacking corps.
Junior Tanner Munk, who was third on the team with 67 tackles, will lead the secondary.
Dakota Wesleyan lost a pair of defensive linemen, so the Tigers will rely on youth up front as the oldest player on the line is a junior.
“We have some guys with experience, but we’re going to count on some young players. The one thing we did best in recruiting was adding size on our defensive line,” Cimpl said. “We signed three D-linemen that were 6-5 or above this year. We have big kids, but they are still freshmen. All I need them to do is tackle the guy with the ball. If they can figure that out, we’re going to be okay and hopefully put them in a position to be successful.”
Cimpl believes the momentum the Tigers gained at the end of last season will carry over to this year. He’s already seen a change in the culture as 45 Dakota Wesleyan players stayed to train over the summer — something Cimpl said he had just eight players do two years ago.
The Tigers will play seven of their 11 games at home, which Cimpl hopes will help the hometown interest continue to grow.
“The dynamic of Mitchell is that it is a basketball town that happens to have a football team, and I think that’s changed a little bit,” he said. “We’re kind of getting to the point where in the fall, we’re a football town. There are people that want to be involved.”