After a little pause through the early signing period and the holidays, let’s keep going here with the position breakdown for the UND football team in 2018.
The final offensive position to look at is on the offensive line, the lifeblood of a run-first team. It’s an especially important position for a team loaded at running back, meaning an improved offensive line could produce major results in 2018. That’s a big if right now.
From the senior class, UND lost Brandon Miller, Mat Cox, Dan Bell and A.J. Stockwell. Demon Taylor was also booted from the team after legal trouble.
Addressing that group:
- Miller and Bell were passed up on the depth chart by younger guys at guard. That depth will be missed.
- Cox was in and out of the lineup with injuries, although I think he was a good leader and will be missed for his ability and willingness to play multiple positions.
- Stockwell also battled injuries and his and Cox’s absence leaves questions at tackle. Stockwell was one of the toughest OL over the years, but his effectiveness was up and down based on injuries.
- As for Taylor, 2016 Taylor will be missed. He wasn’t the same guy in 2017 even before he exited. Elijah Grady and Taylor can be chalked up in the What Could Have Been categories. Those surprise exits are a piece of the future uncertainty at this position group.
So that’s what’s gone. Here’s what I see shaking out at each spot up front:
- Left tackle will be Noah Mortel, who filled in quite a bit last year for Stockwell and the staff remains high on his potential.
- The same goes for left guard Ryan Tobin, who I expect to hold down a guard spot next season. I like big Wisconsin guys. They’re typically tough and low maintenance.
- I think the center will be Patric Rooney, who had a quietly strong 2017 season minus a shotgun snap or two.
- The second biggest battle on the line will be at right guard between Nathan Nguon and Grant Aplin, although both guys could play center if injuries arise. I’m high on the potential of both Nguon and Aplin, so this is a good battle for UND fans.
- The biggest battle … and biggest concern … is at right tackle. Based on experience, Bryce Blair is the front-runner but as pointed out previously here, Blair struggles to put on the proper weight. He just can’t play around 250 pounds at the FCS level. I don’t know what UND listed Blair at on the roster, but there’s no way he was above 250 late in the year. UND needs to address this through recruiting. I would hope UND would be very active right now in searching for jucos or dropdowns. The problem is the OL is one of the hardest to come by in terms of transfers. The Michael Coes of the world are very rare.
Let’s take a closer look at right tackle if Blair isn’t the answer:
- Midco Sports’ Alex Heinert asked me to put together my predictive starters for Midco’s Signing Day Special, and I went with Bennett Helgren at right tackle. That was pretty much a guess. UND needs to develop someone at right tackle (or recruit it as earlier noted). Bennett was a notable recruit out of Edina but his prospects fizzled a bit out of the gates due to an injury that seemed to keep him sidelined most of 2016. I thought he made strides in practice in 2017, but we still don’t know what UND has with this 6-foot-5, 290-pound sophomore-to-be.
- Sean Russo is another young possibility at right tackle. He’s 6-foot-6, 285 pounds out of Highlands Ranch, Colo. From what I’ve seen, he’s comparable progression-wise with Helgren.
- Other youngsters like Wil Prine, Connor Kruse and Jeremy Jenkins aren’t ready to be in the mix yet. Kruse is an intriguing frame, but we haven’t seen much of him yet due to an injury he battled most of 2017.
UND signed three prep offensive lineman during the early signing period: Matt Waletzko of Cold Spring, Minn., Rain Slater of Winnipeg and Donny Ventrelli of St. Paul. I originally had Ventrelli incorrectly listed at tight end, which is what he played in high school. Waletzko and Slater have a decent chance of playing early, I think, just based on having the right weight coming in, although UND needs to get to a place as a program where it doesn’t need prep OL to play early in careers.