Big Sky spring outlook
(STATS) - Much of the Big Sky's postseason success this decade has centered around Eastern Washington, and the coach who oversaw it, Beau Baldwin, has moved on to become Cal's offensive coordinator.
North Dakota, which shared the conference title with EWU last season, Cal Poly and Weber State were all eliminated from the postseason without a win. So it's easy to be down on the offensively strong/defensively challenged Big Sky with CAA Football, the Missouri Valley and other conferences posting postseason success.
But there's no denying the largest FCS conference (13 teams) still has many contenders to make the postseason. Other than Eastern Washington, the 2010 FCS champion and a semifinalist in 2012, 2013 and last year, those teams just have to do better if they get a shot.
Following is a look across the Big Sky with spring practices underway in college football:
Head Coach: Tim Walsh (50-42, eight seasons; 167-124 overall)
2016 Records: 7-5, 5-3 Big Sky
Spring Practices: April 8-May 5
What to Know: The Mustangs slumped over the final month last season, but it was a successful campaign overall with a trip to the FCS playoffs. They return five starters on offense and seven on defense. Having struggled against the passing of spread offenses, Walsh seeks development across his defense. The entire starting secondary returns, but it will have to play better, while a young defensive line will have to figure out its pass rush. The Mustangs' triple-option offense will still have one of the best rushing attacks in the FCS, featuring a veteran offensive line, All-America fullback Joe Protheroe and slot back Kyle Lewis. The Mustangs must replace quarterback Chris Brown.
Head Coach: Aaron Best (first season)
2016 Records: 12-2, 8-0 Big Sky
Spring Practices: April 4-29
What to Know: With Best having spent 20 years in the program, the Eagles are expecting a smooth transition following coach Beau Baldwin's departure after nine seasons. Best vows not to change the offensive style, although the Eagles have lost Cooper Kupp, the most decorated wide receiver in Division I history, and last year's two other 1,000-yard receivers, Shaq Hill and Kendrick Bourne. Of course, quarterback Gage Gubrud is just a junior and will still sling the ball around. The Eagles had a respectable defense last season, but need to replace some key seniors. Linebacker Alek Kacmarcik, cornerback Nzuzi Webster and first-team All-Big Sky defensive tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli headline the athletic unit. The first month of the Best era is challenging: visits to Texas Tech, Fordham and Montana and a home game against North Dakota State.
Head Coach: Mike Kramer (18-50, six seasons; 95-125 overall)
2016 Records: 2-9, 1-7 Big Sky
Spring Practices: April 6-29
What to Know: The stakes are getting higher for the Bengals with the University of Idaho one year away from returning to Big Sky football. The Bengals, who return five offensive starters and eight on defense, are seeking to develop some of their young talent, including on the offensive line and in the secondary. Redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Gueller figures to improve in his second season as the starter. The linebacking unit led by senior Mario Jenkins and junior Joe Martin is one of the team's strengths. The defense needs to improve its pass rush to cut down on the points (41) and yards (502) surrendered per game. The potential of an improved record is helped by the conference schedule not including 2016 co-champs Eastern Washington and North Dakota, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.
Head Coach: Bob Stitt (14-10, two seasons; 122-72-1 overall)
2016 Records: 6-5, 3-5 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 13-April 22
What to Know: The Griz collapsed after a 5-1 start last season, so the Big Sky power is anxious to get back on track. They have a young, but experienced squad which returns 17 starters (nine on defense). The graduation of NFL prospect Brady Gustafson has opened the quarterback competition to former Kentucky signal caller Reese Phillips, Blinn College transfer Caleb Hill and redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen. The fast-paced offense also features veterans across the offensive line and a wide receivers unit featuring Jerry Louie-McGee. The addition of transfers David Shaw and Chris Favoroso to an already strong defensive line, plus the the return of all three starting linebackers, makes for any extremely strong front seven.
Head Coach: Jeff Choate (4-7, one season)
2016 Records: 4-7, 2-6 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 20-April 22
What to Know: A solid end to last season boosted the Bobcats heading into the offseason. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Murray is one of seven returning starters on offense (including four linemen) and is now working under new QBs coach DeNarius McGhee, the former MSU great. Top wide receiver Mitchell Herbert returns, but the starting running back spot is up for grabs, with Nick LaSane auditioning in spring practices before transfer Edward Vander arrives in the summer. Developing the defense, which returns eight starters, also is vital because the Bobcats face a challenging schedule this year. Linebacker Mac Bignell is one of the Big Sky's top players. The special teams already are strong, plus they get back kicker Luke Daly, who missed last season.
Head Coach: Bubba Schweigert (21-14, three seasons; 43-35 overall)
2016 Records: 9-3, 8-0 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 3-April 14
What to Know: A move to the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020 is the talk of UND's offseason, but the Fighting Hawks are working to build off last year's first Big Sky co-championship and FCS playoff berth. They've lost five starters from the conference's best defense, so filling those holes is a focus. The top returnee is safety Cole Reyes, the conference's defensive player of the year. The offense returns nine starters, but it doesn't necessarily mean all will get their jobs back because some redshirt freshmen are expected to push for roles on the offensive line. Quarterback Keaton Studsrud is terrific at managing the offense, and the running back corps that features juniors John Santiago and Brady Oliveira has added Minnesota transfer James Johannesson.
Head Coach: Jerome Souers (112-103, 19 seasons)
2016 Records: 5-6, 4-4 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 21-April 22
What to Know: Quarterback Case Cookus, the 2015 national freshman of the year, returns after missing three-quarters of last season with a shoulder injury. He and the rest of the offense (seven returning starters) are adapting to new offensive coordinator Brian Sheppard, who arrived from Indiana State. The offense is deep at the skill positions with senior wide receivers Emmanuel Butler and Elijah Marks and sophomore running back Joe Logan. The defense doesn't have it so good as only three starters return. Newcomers could factor in, especially with three junior college transfers signed to bolster the secondary. The defensive line also is being revamped. The Lumberjacks hope to get back to their 2015 level (a 7-4 season).
Head Coach: Earnest Collins Jr. (21-46, five seasons; 29-58 overall)
2016 Records: 6-5, 4-4 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 22-April 22
What to Know: UNC has been on the upswing, winning three more games over the past two seasons - 12 - than in Collins' first four combined. Like Northern Arizona, the Bears are getting back a star quarterback from a shoulder injury in Jacob Knipp, who went down in the second game. He returns to a solid offense that features junior running back Trae Riek as one of seven returning starters. But the Bears are rebuilding on defense, and they brought in six midyear transfers to help facilitate it. There are two or three spots up for grabs at linebacker and the defensive line, which struggled to pressure quarterbacks, returns only one starter. The road portion of the schedule is particularly difficult, including FBS trips to Florida and Colorado.
Head Coach: Bruce Barnum (12-11, two seasons)
2016 Records: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky
Spring Practices: April 5-29
What to Know: The 9-3 season in 2015 is well in the rear-view mirror, so Barnum is working to get the Vikings back on track. They return seven starters on each side of the ball. Their new starters will include the quarterback as redshirt freshman Davis Alexander will try to beat out senior Josh Kraght, who moves back from wide receiver. Running back is wide open as well, and the candidates will run behind a solid offensive line. Six freshmen played on defense a year ago after injuries mounted, and the Vikings hope the unit will come of age after a season of struggles. Expect the Vikings to be improved.
Head Coach: Jody Sears (11-23, three seasons; 15-42 overall)
2016 Records: 2-9, 2-6 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 7-April 14
What to Know: With a young team last season and all but two starters returning, the Hornets can envision a better campaign. The key is finding consistency all around. The big senior loss is running back Jordan Robinson, who just missed 1,000 rushing yards. Quarterback Nate Ketteringham and wide receiver Isiah Hennie will be a dangerous duo. The defense gave up too many big plays last year, but defensive end Ben Sorensen should have a big senior season. The Hornets will play six home games, but all five road games are difficult.
Head Coach: Demario Warren (6-5, one season)
2016 Records: 6-5, 5-3 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 22-April 15
What to Know: The Thunderbirds' program has grown tremendously in recent years, and the return of 15 starters (nine on defense) could yield a third straight winning season and a third FCS playoff berth in five years. They have to do a better job of closing out games in the fourth quarter. The experience and depth on defense are noticeable. The seniors include defensive tackle Robert Torgerson and linebacker Mike Needham, who both made the All-Big Sky first team last year, and safety Kyle Hannemann, a third-team selection. Patrick Tyler, also entering his senior year, is coming off an underrated season in a quarterback-rich conference, as he threw for 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
Head Coach: Dan Hawkins (first season; 112-61-1 overall)
2016 Records: 3-8, 2-6 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 7-April 22
What to Know: Ron Gould failed to sustain his first-season success over his final three seasons with the Aggies, so the school replaced him with Hawkins, an alum who had a 53-11 record at Boise State from 2001-05, but went 19-39 at Colorado from 2006-10. One of his early moves was rolling out a school-record 32-member signing class, including two midyear transfers. The offense is hurt by the losses of quarterback Ben Scott and running back Manusamoa Luuga, but wide receiver Keelan Doss (66 receptions, 911 yards, 10 touchdowns) returns. On defense, linebacker Nas Anesi and fifth-year senior safety Keleen Culberson are among the holdovers. The Aggies would be wise to steal a game or two on the road because the home schedule is difficult.
Head Coach: Jay Hill (15-20, three seasons)
2016 Records: 7-5, 6-2 Big Sky
Spring Practices: March 15-April 15
What to Know: Hill has done an excellent job with the Wildcats and he led them back to the FCS playoffs last season after a seven-year drought. They've lost 17 seniors, but their defense still returns nine starters and will be a strength this season. That number doesn't even include standout linebacker Emmett Tela, who was a medical redshirt a year ago. All-America tight end Andrew Vollert and experienced running backs return to the offense, but the Wildcats are replacing three offensive linemen plus quarterback Jadrian Clark, possibly with senior Stefan Cantwell or sophomore Justin Shaw.