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College football: UMD seniors looking forward to one last year as Bulldogs open season at Upper Iowa

Bulldogs say this season could be extra-special after having last season wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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UMD senior quarterback John Larson, right, throws a pass to senior tight end Dane Lew, number 35, during practice Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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In the comedy classic “Animal House,” John Belushi’s character “Bluto” Blutarsky, mulling his future after getting expelled from school, basically says, “Great. Seven years of college down the drain. Might as well join the Peace Corps.”

While it might be a bit of an exaggeration to compare that to the 2021 Minnesota Duluth football team, the fact is, some of these guys have been here a long time.

UMD, which opens the season at 6 p.m. Thursday at Upper Iowa, returns nine of 15 seniors from last fall who are taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA after last fall was wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That group includes four of their five captains in quarterback John Larson, wide receiver Johnny McCormick, linebacker Nate Pearson of Lake Nebagamon and defensive lineman Dan Monson.

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What are these guys now, 25?

Larson got a laugh out of that.

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UMD senior defensive lineman Paxton Woods, center, springs toward senior defensive lineman Nathan Bursch during a blocking drill at practice Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. The Bulldogs will open their 2021 regular season schedule Thursday in Fayette, Iowa against Upper Iowa University. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“No, 23,” he said. “Nate and I are actually the younger ones, but I know Dan Monson and Johnny McCormick are turning 24 here pretty soon.

“It’s been almost two years since we’ve played a game. It’s kind of a weird feeling, honestly. It’s been so long that it feels like I should be done playing football. I’ve got a sixth year, so it’s just a blessing to be able to do it one more season.”

Pearson agreed.

“I’m excited, especially seeing how far all these guys have come from two years ago,” he said. “We’re all just itching to get out there and see what we can do.”

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And for a couple of those seniors, this year could be a springboard to bigger things to come.

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UMD head coach Curt Wiese, center, blows his whistle during football practice Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. Since taking over the position in 2012 after Bob Nielsen's departure, Wiese's record is 71-15 with four NCAA Division II playoff appearances. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Last year a Minnesota Vikings representative came out to campus to take measurements and work out several UMD players, including Larson and Pearson, and that scout apparently shared the information with the Chicago Bears.

“It was a thrilling experience,” Pearson admitted. “Just being able to go through something like that, an experience like that, it was amazing.”

Unfortunately, the Bulldogs never got a chance to show what they could do on the field in an actual game.

This year, they get their chance.

“I can’t wait,” Pearson.

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UMD junior running back Chamere Thomas jogs after a play wrapped up during practice Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Playing in the NFL is a dream for anyone who has ever strapped on the chin strap, and Pearson is no exception. He would love to get a tryout with a pro team after the season.

“That’d be a hard thing to turn down,” Pearson said, laughing, “but I’m not too sure about any of that right now.”

That’s because Pearson’s focus is entirely on this fall. If he does that, Pearson said, everything will take care of itself.

“If I have a really standout season, potentially, there might be some opportunities out there, but I’m more worried about my time at UMD,” he said.

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UMD defensive backs coach Jason Balts gave instructions for a drill while walking during UMD's football practice Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. Balts was recently promoted to a full-time assistant coaching position after previously serving as a postgraduate intern assistant coach. He played wide receiver for the Bulldogs from 2015-2018. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

NO. 23 MINNESOTA DULUTH AT UPPER IOWA

What: College football season opener
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Harms-Eischeid Stadium, Fayette, Iowa
2019 records: UMD 8-3; Upper Iowa 2-9
Forecast: mostly cloudy with a high of 72 and 9 mph wind
Internet: nsicnetwork.com/uiupeacocks
Radio: KDAL 610 AM and 103.9 FM

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UMD offensive line coach Garth Heikkinen gives instructions while walking during UMD's football practice Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. Heikkinen is a Duluth Central High School graduate and was a standout offensive lineman at UMD, helping the Bulldogs win the 2010 NCAA Division II National Championship. As a senior in 2012, he received the Gene Upshaw Award as Division II lineman of the year. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

MINNESOTA DULUTH AT UPPER IOWA

National rankings: UMD is ranked No. 23 in the American Football Coaches Association NCAA Division II preseason poll; Upper Iowa isn’t ranked.
Series: UMD holds a 7-1 advantage in a series that dates to 2006 when the Peacocks moved up to NCAA Division II. Upper Iowa turned in a shocker in their last meeting, upsetting UMD 23-13 Oct. 26, 2019, at Malosky Stadium, snapping the Bulldogs’ 12-game home winning streak and eliminating any chance of them making the NCAA postseason.
Coaches: Curt Wiese is 71-15 going into his eighth season at UMD, including seven NSIC North Division titles, two 11-0 regular seasons and four NCAA Division II playoff appearances.
Jason Hoskins was named the new head football coach at Upper Iowa following the 2019 season. Hoskins becomes the 16th head football coach in the football program's history after returning to the Peacock coaching staff prior to the 2019 season. Jason Hoskins, a former Upper Iowa assistant coach, was named the Peacocks’ head coach following the 2019 season but has yet to coach them in an actual game. The native of Dubuque, Iowa, had a stint with the Bulldogs as a running backs coach and worked with Wiese for a few weeks of the offseason after Wiese’s arrival at UMD in February 2008.
Outlook: UMD quarterback John Larson remembers the Bulldogs’ last meeting with Upper Iowa all too well and what made it even more frustrating for the signal caller was that Larson had to watch the game from the sideline as he was recovering from a dislocated shoulder and was going through concussion protocol. “That one hurt, to say the least,” Larson said. “From what it sounds, if we would have won that game, we would have had a shot at the playoffs as well. We just didn’t play how we expected to play, and I’m not going to lie, they played amazing and deserved to win that game. It just kind of hurt how it went down; we never expect to lose here at UMD, and especially not at Malosky, which made it even more painful.”
The first game of the season is always more difficult to game plan for, and this year, it’s almost impossible as none of these teams played last fall. Upper Iowa has freshman T.J. Smith (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) listed as the starter at quarterback and freshman Willy Camacho (5-9, 180) and sophomore Keontae Luckett (5-10, 200) at running back. “You kind of have to go in with a real basic game plan and adjust on the fly,” UMD coach Curt Wiese said. “I think it’s going to be like that for everybody for a few weeks, because nobody really knows what everybody has coming back personnel-wise. There’s been a lot of development that has taken place with some guys over the last couple years, and a lot of new guys on rosters, so it’s really hard to gauge talent-wise with a lot of teams.”
While Upper Iowa might be an unknown, Larson certainly isn’t. The two-time NSIC North Division Preseason Offensive Player of the Year has all the tools; the 6-foot-1, 237-pounder just needs to stay healthy. Having played his high school ball for Braham (Minn.), he occasionally played against Northland teams and it’s as if he has been around forever. No, it only felt like it. “You lift weights in two years of preparation and it gets kind of old without playing one football game,” Larson said. “A lot of practices went on without any football game in sight. It was hard but now it looks like it was finally worth it. Hopefully, this season goes smoothly and we get through a whole season,hopefully with no hiccups when it comes to the COVID side of things, and just back to normal.”
— Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune

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UMD offensive coordinatorgives Chase Vogler gives instructions during UMD's football practice Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Malosky Stadium in Duluth. Vogler played quarterback for UMD from 2009-2012 and helped the Bulldogs win the 2010 NCAA Division II National Championship. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

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@duluthnew.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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