MARSHALL - Graham Ketterling came to Southwest Minnesota State fully expecting to redshirt his first year on the football team.
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive tackle from Rochester was an all-conference player and a team captain for Century High School, but moving up to play Division II football, he figured he would have to wait for his turn to get on the field and contribute for the Mustangs.
He didn't have to wait long.
In Week 1 of the 2012 season, Ketterling found himself in the starting lineup and going up against the stout offensive line of Minnesota-Duluth, the No. 2 team in the nation.
"I thought for sure I would be redshirting, but they kind of threw me a curveball once I saw myself jumping up on the depth chart," he said.
Ketterling was one of six underclassmen who started for the SMSU defense in the 45-20 loss to the Bulldogs and is part of a young core of players the Mustangs and their fans hope can transform the unit from one of the worst in the country to one of the better defenses in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
SMSU defensive coordinator Christian Guenther and the Mustangs coaching staff focused its recruiting efforts on the defensive side of the ball for Ketterling's class, an obvious decision since the team ranked 141st in the nation in total defense (468.5 yards per game) and 134th in scoring defense (37.4 points per game) last season. With a group of true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores who will see significant playing time this season, Guenther feels he has a solid framework upon which to build.
"I've been very pleased with the talent level that we have," Guenther said. "They lack experience, but in terms of just talent, they do a great job.
"We have some very good players who are very young who have a knack, an instinct for playing the game and they do very well out there. They've helped us out immensely."
Working with a young group of players, Guenther admitted that a quick turnaround would be unlikely. Going from a bad defense to a great defense in a year just doesn't happen.
"One game at a time, one brick at a time is what we'll do. We'll take small steps," said Guenther, whose team takes its next step today against Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D. "Every week we want to be a little bit better, and by the end we'll be where we want to be.
"Those little small strides will get us there. It starts with one good play here, one there, and they'll add up to make a significant contribution for us."
The team's opener against UMD showed Guenther both sides of the coin in terms of the potential of his defense, and also its youth.
The Mustangs came up some key stops as SMSU took an initial lead and went into halftime down just three points. But in the second half the Bulldogs wore the defense down and exploded for 27 points to pull away.
A.J. Page, a sophomore who started at defensive end after playing on the practice squad last year, had six tackles against Duluth. He expressed that the first half was an encouraging sign for his unit and feels that its something the Mustang defense can emulate more often as the young players gain experience.
"We learned that we're a lot better than we were last year and we're a lot better than we thought," said Page, a converted linebacker. "(UMD) really didn't show us anything that we weren't expecting. We did our job and have learned that we're a lot better than what we think."
An aid for the underclassmen has been the leadership of the Mustangs veterans. Defensive captains Mark Schollmeyer and Joe Stupka, both seniors, along with the other returners know how vital the rapid development of the incoming players is to the defense's success and have been very hands on in the process.
"I'm talking more to the seniors here than I did at my high school," Ketterling said. "I just feel really accepted by the older guys. They're all there helping me when I don't know what's going on. They've just provided real good support."
Guenther said two main goals this season are to get the defense to increase the number of turnovers it forces and reduce the number of big plays it allows.
The Mustangs forced just 12 turnovers all of last season, which ranked 145th in the nation. Guenther feels the added speed and athleticism the younger players bring can help create more havoc and more turnovers, but their inexperience also tends to lead to added mistakes which allow big plays, something the team saw in the second half against UMD.
Something that helps the young defense is that the team possesses a high-powered and experienced offense that returns 10 starters from 2011. When the offense puts up points, it allows for a little greater margin of error for the defense.
True freshman cornerback Andrew McReynolds was one of the most highly-touted recruits SMSU signed last February after finishing his high school career at Chaparral High School (Aurora, Colo.) with 27 interceptions. He said he came to SMSU because he felt the Mustangs were a program on the rise and he wanted to be a part of starting a winning tradition.
In time, he feels confident the defense will turn things around.
"Our expectations are to be a great defense," McReynolds said. "Luckily, we have a lot of help on the other side of the ball. Offensively, they can score points. We don't like to make mistakes, but there's room for them.
"It's a learning experience for us all and we're all just trying to get this defense up to standards from the bottom of the conference to the top, and that's the goal."
NOTES: SMSU kicker/punter Mike Wenk will be out with an injury for today's game. Lance Schuveiller will play in Wenk's place for the second straight game. Last week against UMD, Schuveiller had four punts for an average of 30.5 yards and had a 44-yard field goal attempt blocked. ... Safety Tate Bunkers, who was out with an injury last week, will be available to play today. ... Cornerback Andrew McReynolds, who sustained a shin injury in the first quarter against UMD and left the game, said he was feeling fine Thursday and will be able to play. ... Receiver Britt Wickett is also expected to play.