After a long delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chadron State College football team will open its season on Saturday against the Colorado Mesa Mavericks in Grand Junction. Kickoff is set for noon
The game is the first of six the Eagles have scheduled this fall. The next two, against South Dakota Mines on Oct. 17 and Black Hills State on Oct. 24, will be at CSC’s Elliott Field. The remaining three will be on the road.
“We’re anxious to play,” Chadron State Head Coach Jay Long said. “We’ve been practicing for at more than four weeks and we’re ready to go against somebody else.”
There was no guarantee the Eagles would play this fall, but at least 50 Eagles spent much of the summer in Chadron, lifting weights and working out on their own several times a week with hopes they’d eventually get to take the field.
Finally, when the football season would normally be at the halfway point, a shortened schedule is beginning. The Eagles and their three upcoming opponents apparently are the only Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference teams planning to play this fall.
About 120 players are on the CSC roster. They include a dozen returning starters, 26 more lettermen, 15 who were redshirt freshmen last fall but didn’t play, 10 transfers and nearly 40 freshmen.
The offense features Dalton Holst, the Eagles’ starting quarterback the past three years. He ranks with the best in Division II after throwing for 8,000 yards and 69 touchdowns, including 33 last year to set the school record.
Entering his ninth season as the Eagles’ head coach, Long believes this year’s offensive line will be a force. All five started at least part-time a year ago, when the Eagles averaged 458 yards in total offense and 37 points a game, both second best in the conference.
The skill positions include a pair of hard-nosed veterans. Inside receiver Cole Thurness has caught 111 passes for 1,528 yards and 15 touchdowns the past two years while being voted the team’s MVP both times. Tight end Colt Foster, the Hemingford native who missed the entire 2018 season because of a knee injury, was not quite back at full speed last year, but has played extra well this fall, Long said.
Running back has interesting possibilities. Elijah Myles, who ran for 1,077 yards and 12 TDs as a sophomore last season, didn’t return this semester because of the virus uncertainty. His replacements range from Jalen Starks, a 6-foot, 245-pound transfer from UCLA, where he once rumbled 50 yards with a pass reception, to Jeydon Cox, a 5-8, 160 freshman from Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he rushed for more than 2,000 yards as both a junior and a senior.
Another tailback candidate is Chris Busby, who romped for 1,937 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2018 while leading Scottsbluff to the Class B state championship game after winning the Class B state meet 100 meters that spring.
The Eagles also will be a mix of mix of veterans and newcomers on defense.
Coordinator Craig Jersild says his unit has more size up front, is solid at linebacker and is talented, although somewhat inexperienced, in the secondary.
“We got pushed around in the line last year,” Jersild said. “That shouldn’t happen this fall.”
The line leaders include senior Brandon Hopkins, who is 6-4, 300 after adding 20 pounds. Sophomore Kobe Whipple, 6-1, 294, and redshirt freshman Trevon Smith, 6-1, 320, are among the starters up front.
The linebackers will feature senior Travis Wilson, the RMAC leader in tackles last season with 124. His cohorts will include Noah Kerchel, who took part in 74 tackles, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage in 2019.
The safeties include Alliance native Brenden Brehmer, who missed much of last season with a knee injury, but has recovered, along with Cole Condon, who returned an interception 88 yards for a touchdown a year ago, and Jeremiah Gutierrez, who had 41 unassisted tackles and broke up 12 passes.
Mesa has a new head coach. Tremaine Jackson was hired in December after the contract of Russ Martin, a Scottsbluff native and a former Eagles’ linebacker, was not renewed at the end of the 2019 season.
Jackson was the defensive line coach last year at Texas State University after spending two years as defensive coordinator at Abilene Christian. He is a 2006 graduate of the University of Houston in his hometown.
Like the Eagles, Mesa finished 6-5 last fall, when the Mavs returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter and won 42-30 in Chadron.
The Mavericks’ returnees include quarterback Aaron Howard along with running backs Jesse Rodriguez, who carried 29 times for 89 yards against the Eagles, and Isaac Maestas, who paced Mesa in rushing with 687 yards last season.
All the probable defensive starters are juniors and seniors. They include four returning starters along with players who redshirted last season and transfers.
Long said it’s always difficult to play the opener against a team with a new coaching staff, but added the CSC’s new offensive coordinator Micah Smith has installed some wrinkles.
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