MARSHALL - There have been more snowmen built than hits delivered by members of the Southwest Minnesota State football team during the duration of a bizarre month of spring practice.
Sequestered inside of the R/A Facility for half of the dozen practices due to multiple April snowstorms, today's spring game will be the first and only time the Mustangs will experience live tackling before returning to campus for fall practice next school year.
The winter-like weather has been far from ideal and has meant the Mustangs have had to deviate greatly from what's been done in previous years, but head coach Cory Sauter said this hasn't been a lost spring for his team.
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Southwest Minnesota State receiver Anthony Dean, left, tries to rip the ball away from another receiver as wide receivers coach Shane LaDage looks on during a drill in practice Thursday at the Regional Event Center.
"We feel like it's not a waste of time, but if you had it your way you'd definitely like some better weather and some more opportunities on the field," Sauter said. "But that's just the nature of it. We may never see another spring like this ever.
"Obviously it's not the best situation, but we've made the best of it and found a way to get the most out of our players based on the circumstances and they've done a nice job with it."
Those circumstances included the SMSU players needing to clear Mattke Field of snow on two or three separate occasions to allow for a few more outdoor practices. Today's forecast of sunny skies and temperatures approaching 70 degrees will be a new and welcomed development for the Mustangs this spring.
"We had a couple of field days where we came out and rolled snowballs, kind of cleared it off," said SMSU junior Tyler Tonderum, who will be trying to fill the hole at running back following the graduation of Warren Matthews and Gannon Moore. "We made some space out there to try to get some sun on the field. We had the whole team, coaches included, everyone was out there having a good time. It was a pretty good bonding experience for all of us."
Making the best of a bad situation has been a theme, of sorts, for the Mustangs this April. Typically in the spring, Sauter said the coaches would be able to get a good evaluation of some of the younger players. The lack of hitting and full-speed practices have meant those opportunities to evaluate have been very limited this year.
Instead, practices have been used to drill players on the team's systems and give them a better understanding of what the coaches are looking for. And being indoors meant the group was in a more confined area, which allowed the team to get in more reps.
Linebacker J.J. Bobrowicz, the Mustangs' top returning tackler from last season, said the extra time being able to go over plays and schemes was beneficial to a defense that will need to replace a few key veterans.
"With our defense being so young, we actually kind of needed that time to be able to break down our defense and make sure everyone understands their responsibility, what everyone needs to do," Bobrowicz said. "I've run this defense now for four years so I know it like the back of my hand, whereas some of these younger guys are just learning it.
"It's been good having that time in the gym to work on that, but we definitely need that time on the field to execute."
Another difficult circumstance the team has had to face is going through April without having the services of injured quarterback Charlie Kern, who has the most experience at the position with the departure of two-year starter Tyler Peschong. As the team's only healthy quarterback this spring, sophomore Chris Stemen has gotten all the reps at the position during practices.
"He'll be taking all the snaps, so it could be a really short spring game if he ever gets hurt. It could be one play and we're done with the spring game," Sauter said with a wry smile. "Hopefully nothing happens.
"But he's essentially taken every single snap of the spring. There isn't a quarterback in the country that has taken more snaps than Chris Stemen. To his credit, he's held in there. He doesn't get any breaks, but with that he's been getting a lot better, which is good to see because we're going to be needing competition at that position."
Sauter said the Mustangs do feel fortunate to be able to have a spring game this year, something fellow Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference teams Minnesota State-Moorhead and the University of Mary have had to cancel due to unplayable field conditions. That's not going to be a problem for SMSU thanks to the artificial surface at Mattke Field.
The Mustangs' spring game will feature the familiar format of offense versus defense, with a point system used to decide the victor. The offense gets points for touchdowns, field goals, first downs, run plays of 10 or more yards, and pass plays of 20 or more yards. The defense receives points for sacks, tackles for loss, turnovers and turnover on downs.
Returning eight starters on offense and eight starters on defense, players on both sides of the ball have predicted a tight game.
"I feel like it's kind of a toss up," Tonderum said. "The offense hasn't been able to do much cutting on live tackling and the defense hasn't done any tackling at all, so I really feel like nobody has an advantage right now. It'll be interesting to see how the game goes."
The spring game is set to kick off at 1 p.m. today at the Regional Event Center. The game is free and open to the public. There will also be a free youth football clinic for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade starting at 11:45 a.m. The clinic will be conducted by SMSU players and coaches.