With starters returning at nearly every position on both offense and defense, much of the emphasis during the first 10 days of practice for the Chadron State College football team has been on establishing the depth chart.
At all levels of football, players who have been starters nearly always open the new season at that position again, if they are healthy. With almost all the players from last year’s abbreviated schedule still on the roster, there’s not much suspense about who will be the Eagles’ starters when they launch their schedule on Saturday, Sept. 4 against Colorado Western in Gunnison.
About the only offensive starter from last year not available is tight end Baylor Hayes, who graduated in May. The Eagles also are missing last year’s starting running back, but Elijah Myles, the team’s leading rusher in 2019, is back after remaining at home in California last fall because of the COVID pandemic, although he was not infected.
As a sophomore in ‘19, Myles carried 200 times for 1,077 yards and a dozen touchdowns to rank among the most productive running backs in the RMAC.
The Eagles also return one of their best quarterbacks ever in senior Dalton Holst. He’s completed 698 passes during his career and needs to throw for just 1,100 more yards this fall to match Jonn McLain’s CSC career passing yardage record.
But depth is an issue at that position. Holst’s understudy the past two seasons, Tyler Hyland, also graduated this spring. That means there’s no one with even limited experience on hand to take over for Holst this fall in case of an emergency. Offensive Coordinator Micah Smith said he and his helpers are grooming two prospects to be ready should that happen.
They are Trevon Wehrman, a 5-10, 190-pound sophomore who was a two-time Class 2A all-stater at Platte Valley High School at Kersey, Colo., and Mason Hamilton, a 6-0, 185-pound redshirt freshman who was a two-time Class 4A all-stater and Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 selection at Thunder Basin High in Gillette, which is also Holst’s hometown. Getting them ready to play is a priority, Smith admits.
The Eagles also have three true freshmen who were high school quarterbacks, including Preston Pearson, who was a Class A all-stater at Kearney High last fall.
At tight end, Peter Krohn of Rocky Mountain High in Fort Collins and Riley Schliep of Grand Island Northwest are likely to share the playing time. Krohn saw as a true freshman last fall and Schliep has been highly regarded since he stepped on campus in the fall of 2018. Both Krohn (6-3, 230) and Schliep (6-5, 220) are good-sized pass targets who can run.
The Eagles have some cushion at the other offensive positions in case a starter can’t play.
Both Jeydon Cox of Jackson, Wyo., and Chris Busby of Scottsbluff carried the ball in all four of last fall’s games. In addition, freshmen are often able to fill the bill at running back, and the Eagles have several highly-regarded recruits at the position.
Senior Cole Thurness, who has caught 139 passes for 1,911 yards and 19 touchdowns during the past four years, is the most experienced receiver and one of CSC’s all-time greats at the position. Classmate Chad Mikelson had 20 receptions for 309 yards in last fall’s four games. Jahani Wright, Montel Gladney and Ali Musa were also in the rotation and appear ready to rumble again. They combined to catch 18 passes last fall.
“We plan to play up-tempo, running something like 90 plays a game, so we need depth at wideout,” Smith said. “We’re looking at a lot of young players to find it.”
Up front, the Eagles return all of last year’s starters—Justin Calderon and Juan Estrada-Sanchez at the tackles, Austin Rapp and Jake Norris at the guards and Michael DeCamillis at center. The coaches are happy that Trent Grizzle, who is capable of playing about any of the positions, is fully recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered last fall.
“Since we practiced so much both last fall and spring, we created quite a bit of experience in the line,” Smith noted. “The backups got lots of reps, sometimes more than the starters.”
On the other side of the ball, Defensive Coordinator Clint Sasse is pleased that the Eagles are two-deep with experienced personnel in the line, where lots of rotating is usually beneficial.
Brandon Hopkins, listed at 6-4, 300, is the veteran of the group. Like Holst and Thurness, he’s already earned four letters, counting last year’s. Others expected to share playing time at end include seniors Kael Juelfs and Jordan Watt along with sophomore Gabe Perkins and redshirt freshman Hunter O’Connor.
Kobe Whipple (6-1, 295) and Trevon Smith (6-1, 320) were the starters in the middle of the defensive line last fall. More good news is that Tayven Bray (6-3, 280), who played in all 11 games in 2019, has returned after missing last season because of an injury. Also available are a pair of substantial younger players—Rich Harris (6-5, 340) of Glenrock, Wyo., and Kien Martin (6-2, 296) of Overton.
Linebacker is another area where all of last year’s leaders have returned. They include senior Travis Wilson, who led the RMAC in tackles in 2019 with 124, including 64 solos, and Jeremiah Makahununiu, who was a great addition last fall after joining the Eagles when St. Cloud State dropped football.
Another standout is junior Noah Kerchal of Benkelman, who, like Wilson, had 13 tackles for minus yards in 2019. Another leader at the position is sophomore Joey Giel of Casper Kelly Walsh, and Sasse believes redshirt freshman Xavier Harrell is ready for primetime action.
The Eagles have more depth and experience in the secondary than usual. One stalwart is senior Jeremiah Gutierrez, who had 41 unassisted tackles and broke up 12 passes in 2019. The coaches also were elated with the addition of Bobby Peele last fall, when he intercepted three passes in the four games. Before transferring, he’d picked off 12 passes in 19 games while playing two years at College of Sequoias in California.
Others who saw plenty of action last fall included Alliance product Brendan Brehmer, Cole Condon and Ju’Wan Murphy, who convinced Peele to join him at CSC a year ago.
The coaches are happy that two talented players—Estabon Bozeman and Ethan Zimmerman--who have had injury problems are now healthy.
Often, making the special teams is the first step to getting on the field full time.
With so many top-flight seniors on this year’s team, there’ll be plenty of shoes to fill next season. Head Coach Jay Long noted that, as usual, most of the true freshmen will redshirt, but he said a few of them may make their college debuts this fall.