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College football: Bulldogs not bitten by preseason poll snub

Bemidji State trumps UMD for top honors in the NSIC North Division for first time, but Bulldogs don't take too much stock in polls.

Bulldogs Armani Carmickle (8), Kurtis Weigand (82) and Cooper Yeary (19) run through stretching drills at the start of practice
Bulldogs Armani Carmickle (8), Kurtis Weigand (82) and Cooper Yeary (19) run through stretching drills at the start of practice at Malosky Stadium on the Minnesota Duluth campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Minnesota Duluth football coach Curt Wiese has never been one to put much stock into polls, especially preseason polls, but he is making a bit of an exception this year.

Bemidji State was picked to win the NSIC North Division in the coaches’ preseason poll. It is believed to be the first time the Bulldogs haven’t been favored since the league went to a North and South format in 2008. That’s the same year UMD rejoined the league and went on to win the first of two NCAA Division II football championships.

“I’m hoping our guys use that as motivation,” Wiese said. “We haven’t talked a lot about it as a team. We’re really focused on Southwest Minnesota State (UMD’s season opener, Thursday, Sept. 1) and taking it day by day, but I’m hoping our guys understand that No. 1, Bemidji State has a good football team, and secondly, we have areas we can improve and we better be hungry.”

The Bulldogs certainly looked hungry in their season-opening practice last week at Malosky Stadium.

Guys had a little extra spring in their step and receivers were making crazy catches, including some nice sideline grabs by the likes of Armani Carmickle and Byron Bynum. The competition was friendly, with receivers and defensive backs fist bumping or high-fiving after nice plays.

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UMD has an open competition at quarterback, with veterans Garrett Olson and Logan Graetz competing against redshirt freshmen Nate Elmes and Kyle Walljasper for the starting nod.

Walljasper, a solid 6-foot-1, 230-pounder, was a standout at Fond du Lac (Wis.) High School, where he was teammates with Wisconsin Badgers’ freshman sensation Braelon Allen, who rushed for nearly 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns as a 17-year-old last season.

Walljasper is no slouch, either, looking sharp throwing on the run last week, but the Bulldogs still have a long way to go before Sept. 1. They need to see more.

“Kyle improved a lot through spring and had a really good summer throwing the football,” Wiese said. “He’s intelligent, and he throws the ball really well, so I’m excited to see him as we get into a little more live football work.”

Don’t hand Walljasper the keys to the Bulldogs’ offense just yet. That was one practice, and Wiese was absolutely clear, it’s an “open competition.” UMD fans can’t wait to see how it shakes out.

You have to “earn it” has been the Bulldogs’ mantra since 2015. That message is on the back of their practice jerseys, their helmets, in the locker room, all over. Those players who do everything right earn a gold bone to go on the back of their helmet.

“We have to earn every opportunity to earn a conference championship,” Wiese said. “Nothing is going to be handed to us.”

While you know players look at polls — who doesn’t? — Bulldogs captain and tight end Zach Ojile said all the right things when asked last week about that NSIC North Division preseason poll slight.

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“Nah, we’re not really focused on it,” said Ojile, who at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds is built like one of the Bulldogs potential starting quarterbacks.

“Our goal is just to get better every single day,” Ojile added. “I don’t think we really get caught up in any of that (poll bragging rights). I think every year we’re just hungry to do it again. So that’s what we’re focused on, just getting better every day and having our eyes set on Southwest Minnesota State. If we do that, we’ll have a shot at the end of the year.”

In addition to Ojile, a sixth-year senior, Carmickle, running back Wade Sullivan, offensive lineman Brent Laing and linebackers Cole Refsnider and Brad Dati — the NSIC North Division preseason defensive player of the year — were named UMD captains.

Steger not in camp

John Steger, the senior member of the UMD football coaching staff, is on medical leave.

Steger, a defensive guru, came to UMD in 1999, and other than a two-year stint at Southern Illinois in 2009-10, has been with the Bulldogs.

The longtime defensive coordinator has served as associate head coach (special teams/linebackers) most recently.

“Defensively and special-teams wise, we’re a little bit different, but I thought our staff did a really good job, and our upperclassmen, of helping us out organizationally to put us in a good spot,” Wiese said after last week’s opening practice.

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Wiese said the team found out about three weeks ago that Steger would be out for an extended period.

“He’s at home, he’s in good spirits and he’s doing OK,” Wiese said. “We have to work around some things. It’s an added responsibility for the upperclassmen to make sure things go smoothly out there.”

Have leg, will boom punts

You didn’t have to look around very long last week to realize UMD has a new weapon.

You simply had to look up.

Sophomore punter Logan Kobus was with the Bulldogs last year but had an injury-plagued freshman year. Now healthy, last week, he was booming moonshots.

Wiese smiled when he heard, “Hey, your punter looks pretty good out there.”

“We haven’t seen or had a kid like Logan Kobus ever in our program, and that’s not a knock on our former punters,” Wiese said. “Logan is super talented and takes being a specialist very seriously.”

At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Kobus, from Green Bay’s Pulaski High School, is built like these other guys. UMD recruits athletes. He is currently listed on the roster as an outside linebacker but clearly has a golden leg.

You don’t have to tell Wiese that Kobus could be a game-changer by flipping the field position in games. Wiese is well aware how important special teams are.

“Absolutely,” Wiese said. “We’re excited to see him healthy this fall and see him take the next step as a sophomore.”

Minnesota Duluth defensive back Jarrett Bennett (32) makes a catch during practice
Minnesota Duluth defensive back Jarrett Bennett (32) makes a catch during practice at Malosky Stadium on the UMD campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
The Minnesota Duluth defensive line unit hits blocking pads
The Minnesota Duluth defensive line unit hits blocking pads during practice at Malosky Stadium on the UMD campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Bulldog quarterback Garrett Olson (16) throws a pass during practice
Bulldog quarterback Garrett Olson (16) throws a pass during practice at Malosky Stadium on the Minnesota Duluth campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Bulldog linebacker Harrison Kielar (49) gets a drink
Bulldog linebacker Harrison Kielar (49) gets a drink during practice at Malosky Stadium on the Minnesota Duluth campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Bulldog defensive back Zach Wallace (28) jumps to make a catch
Bulldog defensive back Zach Wallace (28) jumps to make a catch during practice at Malosky Stadium on the Minnesota Duluth campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Bulldog quarterback Logan Graetz (4) completes a pass
Bulldog quarterback Logan Graetz (4) completes a pass during practice at Malosky Stadium on the Minnesota Duluth campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Bulldog tight end Cameron Miller (34) turns up field after making a catch during practice
Bulldog tight end Cameron Miller (34) turns up field after making a catch during practice at Malosky Stadium on the Minnesota Duluth campus Monday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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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