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College football: UMD's Balts responding as a go-to receiver

Minnesota Duluth's Jason Balts has become the team's go-to receiver. (2016 News Tribune file photo)

Minnesota Duluth standout wide receiver Nate Ricci was lost for the season after breaking his collarbone Sept. 16, putting more pressure on junior wideout Jason Balts to produce.

Balts responded the next week with a nine-reception, 217-yard performance in a double-overtime victory at Wayne State, with the 217 yards being third most in program history and just 32 off the record.

Balts, a junior captain, has 31 receptions for 519 yards and three touchdowns heading into the Bulldogs' NSIC North Division game at 2 p.m. today at Minnesota State-Moorhead.

"Jason has worked for the season he's had," UMD coach Curt Wiese said. "It hasn't come as a big surprise to us. He's a tremendous leader and really smart football player."

Balts is averaging a gaudy 16.7 yards per reception. His 103.8 receiving yards per game has him on pace for 1,142 yards for the 11-game regular season, which would put him third all-time at UMD, behind former Mountain Iron-Buhl product D.J. Winfield (1,201 in 2008) and Cloquet Lumberjack Tim Battaglia (1,166 in 2002). Winfield played 15 games that season; Battaglia 12.

Balts downplayed the production, saying it is largely the product of a season where UMD has often found itself playing catchup.

"It's definitely been an adjustment not having Nate," Balts said. "I miss seeing him out there on the edge. We've had to adjust to a few things, but it's kind of been the nature of our games, in regard to how much we've thrown. My receptions are a little higher, but it's not just me. All our guys have stepped up."

Senior Dominic Bonner is second on the team with 20 receptions for 257 yards and three touchdowns, while senior James Conner is fourth with 12 receptions for 157 yards and a TD, a yard and reception behind Ricci.

Conner had two receptions for 62 yards in a 34-21 victory over St. Cloud State last week, including a weaving 52-yard touchdown run, and Bonner had three catches for 60 yards and two more scores as UMD featured a balanced attack. Balts was "held" to three catches for 38 yards and a touchdown.

"Teams might key on Jason more, but he has guys around him, and when you have good guys around you, it gives you the ability to open things up," Wiese said. "Unfortunately we lost Nate but, fortunately, we're deep enough to sustain it. James Conner and Dom Bonner have certainly held their weight, and we've done a good job putting Jason in position to have success."

At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, and with good speed and quickness, Balts can line up inside or out. He isn't afraid to go over the middle, as evidenced by catches he has made in traffic. He has three 100-yard receiving games this season and has at least two catches in each contest, even as UMD has dealt with a quarterback carousel due to injury.

"There are always things you can improve upon," Balts said. "After the Wayne State game, I wanted to really focus on my blocking, and I felt I took a step forward against St. Cloud and was able to have a couple nice blocks. That's another thing I take pride in."

Balts hails from Barron, Wis., where he grew up in a football family. Both of his brothers, Josh and Justin, played college football, with Josh playing running back at Wisconsin from 2003-06 and Justin playing strong safety at Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2008. Josh battled injuries but made it into a few games his senior year for the Badgers. Jason attended their bowl games.

Jason Balts was a multisport athlete at Barron, starting three years in football, playing point guard in basketball and catcher, shortstop and outfield in baseball. He has applied that all-around skill set to UMD.

After redshirting in 2014, Balts played sparingly as a freshman before having a breakout year last year, hauling in 51 passes for 952 yards and eight touchdowns, second only to Ricci's 61 receptions for 1,047 yards. Balts is also a reliable kick and punt returner and even took snaps at quarterback in practice this fall when the Bulldogs were thin behind center.

Wiese said Balts, a physical education major with a 3.98 grade-point average, could make a great coach one day.

"A lot of our game plan is centered around getting him mismatches," Wiese said. "Jason is a very intelligent football player, and he doesn't have any problem being as versatile as we need him to be."

After a Thursday game against St. Cloud State, UMD had plenty of time to rest and prepare for today's game at Moorhead. The Dragons come in yielding 224 passing yards per game, 12th in the 16-team NSIC, so Balts could be primed for another big outing.

UMD (3-2) AT MINN. STATE-MOORHEAD (2-3)

What: NSIC North Division football game

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: Alex Nemzek Field, Moorhead, Minn.

Moorhead forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 70 and 19 mph wind

Internet: portal.stretchinternet.com/umd

Radio: KDAL 610 AM and 103.9 FM/kdal610.com

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