Defense pivotal to South Dakota State meeting high expectations

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(STATS) - There are few questions surrounding South Dakota State's high-powered offense heading toward what should be a banner 2017 season.

As the Jackrabbits get set to conclude spring practice Saturday with their annual intrasquad game at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, the defense is under the microscope. At the least, its players have to figure out how to slow down the Jackrabbits' All-America triumvirate of quarterback Taryn Christion, tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke on a daily basis.

The Jackrabbits are coming off a 9-4 season which included a first-ever Missouri Valley Football Conference co-title and a quarterfinal-round appearance that marked their deepest run ever in the FCS playoffs.

But to meet this year's higher expectation - the prospect of winning the national championship? - coach John Stiegelmeier's squad must overcome the loss of five starters on defense.

Up front, two of last year's three regular defensive tackles are gone, leaving Kellen Soulek as the anchor. Junior Blake Whitsell is the most experienced of the players taking on larger roles.

On the edge, the Jackrabbits need to improve their pass rush. None of the returning defensive ends had more than Ryan Earith's two sacks.

"We need to find the great pass rusher," Stiegelmeier told the Argus-Leader in Sioux Falls. "One of those guys has to develop into that guy."

While linebacker Christian Rozeboom, a first-team All-MVFC selection and the conference's 2016 freshman of the year, returns, multi-year starters Jesse Bobbit and Dallas Brown are gone on the outside. Juniors Dalton Cox and Eric Kleinschmit are the most experienced of the other returning linebackers.

Fortunately for the Jackrabbits, their secondary is full of veterans.

But after SDSU allowed 27.3 points and 403.7 yards per game - the highest averages during five straight playoff seasons - Stiegelmeier is looking for significant improvement on defense this year.