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Bulldogs open with optimism; NCC coaches pick UMD to finish fourth

After speaking at length on Monday about all the things he was excited about for the upcoming season, Minnesota Duluth football coach Bubba Schweigert was asked at the Bulldogs' annual Football Media Day what he felt about the North Central Confe...

After speaking at length on Monday about all the things he was excited about for the upcoming season, Minnesota Duluth football coach Bubba Schweigert was asked at the Bulldogs' annual Football Media Day what he felt about the North Central Conference preseason football polls releasedMonday.

League coaches have the Bulldogs picked to finish fourth. The media, fifth.

Schweigert, who has never put too much stock into polls, simply said, "Hey, I like our team."

UMD coaches weren't just happy on Monday. They were borderline giddy. Part of that is because these are football guys, and with fall quickly approaching, football guys are happy guys. But a big part also has to do with the fact UMD returns nine starters on offense and seven starters on defense from a team that went 6-4.

The Bulldogs open their 75th season of intercollegiate football Sept. 1 at home against Bemidji State. The Bulldogs have had 56 winning seasons and will be going for the 400th win in program history against the Beavers.

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"Those are numbers we're certainly proud of and will be looking to add to," said offensive coordinator Phil Longo.

Helping toward another winning season could be familiarity and continuity. UMD has been running a regular coaching carousel in recent years.

Last season Longo became the team's fourth offensive coordinator in a four-year span, but he and offensive line coach Peter Lue are back this year. The returning players know the system and what to expect. Schweigert said the difference was obvious from Saturday's first practice.

"When you look at our offense, it's like night and day from last year," Schweigert said. "There's no comparison."

That should help junior quarterback Ted Schlakfe rekindle some of the magic he showed as a redshirt freshman in 2005, when the 6-foot, 185-pounder from Stevens Point, Wis., guided the Bulldogs into the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Hobbled by an ankle injury, Schlafke was less effective last season but still managed to put up good numbers, completing 252 of 419 passes for 2,536 yards, with 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He, along with senior linebackers Nate Fears and Jon Rufledt, are captains for this season.

Two of UMD's top graduation losses on offense are receiver Greg Aker and lineman Mark Knudsen. Schweigert expects receiver Tony Doherty, a two-sport standout like Aker, to have a breakout year, while the host of returning players on the offensive line should help boost the Bulldogs' anemic running game. UMD ran for only 663 yards last season, with Schlafke having 183 of that.

Doherty, a junior from Prior Lake, Minn., said more players stayed in Duluth to work out this summer than in his previous seasons. No longer do the players need prodding from the coaches. The veteran players are running the show.

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"Just looking around at the team, everyone looks a lot faster, and the linebackers and linemen look a lot bigger. You can tell that guys definitely improved in the offseason," Doherty said. "I know we've got some big shoes to fill with Greg being gone, but it won't be one guy. We'll use multiple guys to overcome any losses."

On defense, Fears and Rufledt each bring three years of starting experience to the middle. The defensive front will once-again likely be largely by committee but is experienced with seniors Scott Syverson and Matt Beck, while 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior Cody Ahmann returns at outside linebacker after leading the Bulldogs with 6½ sacks. The Bulldogs have perhaps the best safety tandem in the league in juniors Tyler Yelk and Jim Johnson.

A host of players, including sophomores Korey Horn and Cole Strilzuk will compete for starting spots at cornerback, the defensive's most questionable area. Count Eric Castellano in that mix after the senior opted to not have knee surgery but will try to play with a torn anterior cruciate ligament this season.

The Bulldogs open with three straight home night games, with the three opponents (Bemidji State, Missouri Western State and South Dakota) among the five teams on UMD's schedule that played in the postseason last year.

"Every game is going to be tough this year, so we've got to be ready," Ahmann said. "Having all the guys up here this summer helped it go by. You get to a point where you kind of get used to the daily routine, but all summer, I've been looking forward to that first game."

JON NOWACKI covers college sports and motor sports. He can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5305 or by e-mail at jnowacki@duluthnews.com .

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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