North Dakota working toward the next step

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(STATS) - The 2016 season at North Dakota was the best since the program moved to the FCS level for the 2008 season.

As far as the defending Big Sky co-champs are concerned, it was just a start.

The Fighting Hawks have been working during spring practice toward taking a bigger step in 2017. They wrap up spring drills Friday evening with their annual spring game inside the school's High Performance Center in Grand Forks.

"We accomplished some great things last season, but we left the field for the final time with a real bad taste in our mouths," said fourth-year coach Bubba Schweigert, whose team bowed out of the second round of the FCS playoffs against Richmond, finishing 9-3.

"We were proud of advancing to the FCS playoffs, but our goal and vision for this program is to advance in the playoffs, and, ultimately, be one of the top teams competing for a national title every season. We have a lot of work to do to get to that point."

With only running backs coach Kevin Maurice lost in the offseason, the Fighting Hawks have had a smooth spring. One of the focuses has been on reworking a defense which lost five starters, although one of its returnees is senior safety Cole Reyes, the 2016 Big Sky defensive player of the year.

The offense is much more experienced, including third-year quarterback Keaton Studsrud as one of nine returning starters. The kickers and leading returner John Santiago also are back.

North Dakota will play three more seasons in the Big Sky before it moves to the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. However, this is the final season in which the Fighting Hawks are eligible for the Big Sky title.