MARSHALL- As Southwest Minnesota State prepares for its annual spring football game this afternoon, the Mustangs have had three solid weeks of spring practice under their belts.
Coach Cory Sauter is getting a better idea of the road ahead for the Mustangs.
Sauter's primary concern after last season was the defense as the Mustangs fell 90-28 in the Mineral Water Bowl to Pittsburgh State to end last season on Dec. 7, 20013.
"We have made significant gains on the defensive side of the ball," Sauter said. "We have a lot of starters returning and they should be an improved group by the time the season rolls around."
The lop-sided loss to Pittsburgh State may have served as a wakeup call for the Mustangs.
Sauter hopes his returning players will be able to learn and grow from that experience.
"I hope it would be an eye opener and showed us that we weren't where we would like to be," Sauter said. "It should add more fuel to the fire. I hope it will be something they remember."
The Mustangs lost all five starting offensive lineman from last year's team and it will be a matter of getting numbers back. Sauter admitted the numbers on the offensive line are low for spring, but they have 15 people with offensive line aspirations that will be on campus in the fall.
"The offensive line is the hardest to train right now," Sauter said. "They are our biggest concern right now and it is going to be a work in progress as we get some more guys to campus here in the fall."
One area that Sauter isn't too worried about is the quarterback position as Charlie Kern will return for his senior season as the starting quarterback. He threw for an NSIC-leading 33 touchdowns last season against just seven interceptions.
"He's going to be expected to carry the offense," Sauter said. "He's somebody that can run and is athletic and can get the ball in the end zone."
There will be a battle for his backup position as true freshman Blake Gimbel Chris Stemen and Phoenix College (Ariz.) transfer Cody McCleve will compete for a backup role.
It is going to be tough to replace Anthony Dean, who contributed 18 touchdown receptions last season and Sauter knows it will be a tough task to find a player of his level.
"It's going to definitely be a lot of work by committee," Sauter said. "The group has been improving and are making strides in spring practice."
Jordan Cross, Adam Olson and Mike Williams will all return as seniors to the wide receiver corps.
Sauter feels the running backs will serve as one of the deepest positions on the team as Tyler Tonderum will return and likely keep his starting spot. Ashanti Payne, Isaac Seymour and Ridgewater College, Fla., transfer Davontay Stevens could also see playing time.