CHADRON, Neb. — October 5, 2020 — After many weeks of deliberation and consultation, the Chadron State College football team is due to open its season on Saturday against Colorado Mesa in Grand Junction. Kickoff is set for noon
The game is the first of six the Eagles have scheduled for this fall. The next two, against South Dakota Mines on Oct. 17 and Black Hills State on Oct. 24, will be at CSC’s Elliott Field, while the remaining three will be on the road. One of them will be against long-time rival Nebraska-Kearney.
“We’re anxious to play,” Chadron State Head Coach Jay Long said. “We’ve been practicing for at least four weeks and we’re ready to go against somebody else. We’re glad to have this opportunity and want to make the most of it.”
With the Covid-19 Pandemic wiping out spring sports at all levels worldwide beginning in March and then interrupting or delaying even professional sports well into the summer, no one could predict what would happen this fall. But at least 50 Chadron State players spent much of the summer in Chadron, lifting weights and working out on their own several times a week with hopes they’d get to play this fall.
Those hopes ebbed and flowed with the NCAA and Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference presidents’ council also involved in trying to decide what was best for the health of the populace, the athletes and the athletic programs.
With the support of Chadron State President Randy Rhine, Athletic Director Joel Smith “carried the ball,” so to speak, for the Eagles, connecting with colleagues on numerous conference calls and Zoom sessions, exchanging idea and letting contacts know the CSC football team planned to play if the opportunity was available
Now, when the football season would normally be at the halfway point, a shortened schedule is beginning. The Eagles, along with their three upcoming opponents, as well as Western Colorado University, are the five RMAC teams planning to play this fall.
Many precautions are being taken. Masks are worn by everyone during CSC practices. The players and coaches are screened (temperatures taken) every day and are tested with a probe going up their nostrils weekly. Everyone who boards the busses to Grand Junction on Thursday will have been cleared by health agencies.
About 120 players are on the roster. They include a dozen returning starters, 26 more lettermen, 15 who were redshirt freshmen last fall but didn’t play, 10 transfers and nearly 40 freshmen.
The offense features Dalton Holst, the Eagles’ starting quarterback the past three years. He ranks with the best in Division II after throwing for 8,000 yards and 69 touchdowns, including 33 last year to set the school record.
Entering his ninth season as the Eagles’ head coach, Long believes this year’s offensive line will be a force. They are tackles Justin Calderon and Juan Estrada-Sanchez, guards Austin Rapp and Jake Norris and center Michael DeCamillis. All started at least part-time a year ago, when the Eagles averaged 458 yards in total offense and 37 points a game, both second best in the conference.
The skill positions include a pair of hard-nosed veterans. Inside receiver Cole Thurness has caught 111 passes for 1,528 yards and 15 touchdowns the past two years while being voted the team’s MVP both times. Tight end Colt Foster, the Hemingford native who missed the entire 2018 season because of a knee injury, was not quite back at full speed last year, but has played extra well this fall, Long said.
Tevon Wright, who caught 74 passes for 1,146 yards and a CSC all-time high 16 touchdowns last fall, graduated. Junior Chad Mikelson and numerous promising youngsters, including Wright’s brother, Jahani, along with Jalon’e Rice, Montel Gladney and Ethan Fray, will try to take up the slack.
Running back is another position with interesting possibilities. Elijah Myles, who ran for 1,077 yards and 12 TDs as a sophomore last season, didn’t return this semester because of the virus uncertainty, but plans to continue his career at CSC when conditions improve.
Myles’ replacements range from Jalen Starks, a 6-foot, 245-pound transfer from UCLA, where he once rumbled 50 yards with a pass reception, to Jeydon Cox, a 5-8, 160 freshman from Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he rushed for more than 2,000 yards as both a junior and a senior.
Other tailback candidates are Justin Cauley and Chris Busby. Cauley, a sophomore, is the leading incumbent at the position, but received only 19 carries in 2019. Busby, a freshman who spent last season earning his athletic eligibility, romped for 1,937 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2018 while leading Scottsbluff to the Class B state championship game after winning the Class B state meet 100 meters that spring.
Long said he likes the position’s potential.
The Eagles also will be a mix of mix of veterans and newcomers on defense.
Coordinator Craig Jersild says his unit will have more size up front, is solid at linebacker and is talented, although somewhat inexperienced, in the secondary.
“We got pushed around in the line last year,” Jersild said. “That shouldn’t happen this fall.”
The line leaders include senior Brandon Hopkins, who is 6-4, 300 after adding 20 pounds. Others up front will include sophomores Kail Juelfs, 5-10, 240, and Kobe Whipple, 6-1, 294, and redshirt freshman Trevon Smith, 6-1, 320.
The linebackers will feature senior Travis Wilson, the RMAC leader in tackles last season with 124. He’ll be joined by rising standout Noah Kerchel, who took part in 74 tackles, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage last fall, and Jeremiah Makahununiu, a transfer from St. Cloud State in Minnesota. Special teams playmaker Bryant Wilson of Alliance and Joey Geil, who is among the players Jersild says “gets better every day,” will provide depth.
Ju’Wan Murphy and Bobby Peele, both highly regarded transfers, are expected to hold down the cornerback slots while Brenden Brehmer, Cole Condon and Jeremiah Gutierrez are the likely leaders at safety.
After being sidelined early last fall, Brehmer has recovered from a knee injury while Condon returned an interception 88 yards for a touchdown and Gutierrez had 41 unassisted tackles and broke up 12 passes a year ago. Rangy Ethan Zimmerman will supply depth.
Mesa has a new head coach. Tremaine Jackson was hired in December after the contract of Russ Martin, a Chadron State graduate and former Eagles’ linebacker, was not renewed at the end of the 2019 season.
Martin had been the Mavericks’ head coach eight seasons, compiling a 56-32 record. He’s now the offensive coordinator at West Texas State, one of the teams Mesa will play this fall.
This is Jackson’s first head coaching position. He was the defensive line coach last year at Texas State University after spending two years as defensive coordinator at Abilene Christian. Prior to that, he was an assistant coach at the University of Sioux Falls four years. He is a 2006 graduate of the University of Houston in his hometown.
Like the Eagles, Mesa finished 6-5 last fall, but the Mavs returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter and won last year’s game 42-30 in Chadron.
The Mavericks’ returnees include quarterback Aaron Howard along with running backs Jesse Rodriguez, who carried 29 times for 89 yards in the clash, and Isaac Maestas, who paced Mesa in rushing last season with 687 yards.
However, Mesa has had to rebuild its offensive line and graduated Pete Anderson, who caught a 74-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game against CSC a year ago and finished the season with 47 receptions for 921 yards and eight TDs.
Defensively, the Mavericks return four starters, but Nick Ciccio, a sophomore cornerback last year when he led the RMAC with eight interceptions, including two against the Eagles, is not on this year’s roster.
Long said it’s always difficult to play a team with a new coaching staff in their opener, but noted CSC’s new offensive coordinator Micah Smith has installed some wrinkles, too.