BROOKINGS, S.D. (KELO) – You may have once sat in a classroom while the professor taught, but what were those weeks like in the summer while they carefully planned each lesson?

You may have boarded a plane while the pilot’s voice calmly told you to expect a smooth ride, but did you get to see the dozen of simulated flight tests he once had to pass?

Maybe you stood and clapped at the band’s sold out concert, but did you witness the creative process it took between each member to find the perfect melody?

It’s not all too common to watch someone practice and prepare for a craft they have chosen to do out of passion. That’s exactly what I’ve gotten to do by attending South Dakota State football practices.

Over the next several paragraphs, from a program overview, to individuals, to a conversation I had with an NFL scout, to a few players I believe one day could be stars, I will break down everything I’ve gathered from my time spent around the South Dakota State football program over the last month.

  1. Practice overview:

I’m sure at some point in your life, perhaps phrased a bit differently, you’ve been told something of the effect:

You will become who you surround yourself with.

If you consider yourself a lazy person and would like to keep it that way, don’t ever come to a Jackrabbit football practice.

From the music, to the constant direction being hollered from the coaches, to the whistles being blown from rep to rep, there is a vibrant energy across the field. That’s to be expected from a winning program.

But what’s stood out most is the efficiency. There is no wasted time. None.

From the skill work (mostly QB, RB, WR, TE) while they’re split up in position groups, to the different drills that involve technique (mostly offensive line and most of the defense), to the rehearsing of plays on offense, to the scheme preparation on defense, even the special teams, it’s very well organized. 

I can count on one hand the number of college football programs I’ve seen practice live. So, maybe there’s a coach reading this somewhere saying big deal, that’s how most teams operate. Okay fine. 

But I can tell you this much. There isn’t another team getting more out of their day than South Dakota State.

John Stiegelmeier enters his 26th season as head coach at South Dakota State

2. Program / Athlete overview

Ask anyone on the team, anyone in the program for that matter, what the goal is this season, the answer is a national championship. 

It’s well documented how close they’ve been the past five years. 

I’ve had conversations with several people within the program where they have expressed the different ways they’re trying to get “one percent better”. I’ll offer two examples: 

  1. Mental Performance Coach Kris Kracht – Kracht has been with the team for the past three seasons. (He also works with several other teams at SDSU). The Jacks have mental strength training every Monday before position meetings and practice. He also conducts mental rehearsal and breathing routines the night before road games and morning of home games.

I’ve had the privilege to listen to a few of his speeches in front of the team from a distance. 

Obviously, I am not a part of the team. I don’t play football. But I’ve taken something away from every one of his lectures. And that to me is the point. His job is to better your mind for what you are about to partake in throughout the day and week. 

2. While Kracht deals with the mind, Matt Jacobs handles the body.

Jacobs returns to his alma mater (graduated from SDSU in 2010) in his first year as the Director of Strength & Conditioning after spending the past three years at Temple.

From nutrition, to their lifting patterns, there’s been some changes made to the Jacks strength and conditioning program. When I first started coming to practice this season, I noticed several athletes who plain as day just looked different.

Garret Greenfield put on close to 17 pounds of muscle, while Mason McCormick lost nearly 15 pounds. Both told me they’ve never felt better on their feet.

Kevin Brenner added nearly 20 pounds to his frame. Isaiah Stalbird put on 15 pounds and fellow linebacker Caleb Francl, while I haven’t had the chance to find out the exact number, looks as transformed as anyone I’ve seen on the roster.

Converted Linebacker Isaiah Stalbird

All five players mentioned have been in Brookings for at least two full years. It’s not like they’re 18-year-old freshman who are going through a college weightlifting program for the first time where this kind of body revision is more commonly seen.

Junior Linebacker Caleb Francl

This group of 112 kids is trying to reach a height the program has never been.

It’s a difficult task that they’re chipping away at through stern focus. But as locked in as they may be, every time I go to practice, they seem to be having fun. They genuinely seem to enjoy being around one another and that’s as positive a sign as any.

“This is the closest football team I’ve been part of and I’ve been part of a lot of them and it’s not just me saying that, it’s the players saying that.”

SDSU Head Coach John Stiegelmeier
Head Coach John Stiegelmeier partaking in jumping jacks with the team

3. Offensive Position Breakdowns:

A. Quarterbacks

Part one: Mark Gronowski

In a roundabout way, Mark Gronowski’s first two years of college football have transpired in reverse.

Usually when a “freshman” quarterback becomes a star, they’re a redshirt freshman who spent their first year within a program standing on the sidelines watching a veteran lead the offense.

But Gronowski won the starting job and became a household name around the state as a true freshman, before standing on the sidelines watching a veteran (6th year senior QB Chris Oladokun) in his second year of college football.

After tearing his ACL in the FCS national championship against Sam Houston, 15 and a half months later, Gronowski will be back in uniform for the yellow and blue.

SDSU sophomore quarterback Mark Gronowski

Watching him throw in practice, his mechanics look good. His motion is fluid and there doesn’t seem to be any lack of trust with his knee. But with that said, he’s yet to take a live hit. And that will certainly change come Saturday in Kinnick Stadium.

Returning from a serious injury in any sport is not easy. There’s a world where Gronowski struggles a bit against the Hawkeyes. Not only is he 450 plus days removed from live action, but he’s never played against an FBS football team.

Remember, during the 2021 spring season the Jackrabbits 10 opponents all came from the FCS.

I’m not saying he can’t or won’t perform well. In fact, I bet he does. I’m just pointing out the task that is placed before him in week one.

Part two: A name to keep an eye on

Everyone knows what Gronowski can do. Keaton Heide has started several games as a Jackrabbit. I’ve been impressed with Rudy Voss’ deep ball from time to time in live offensive vs defensive drills. True freshman Jeff Becker spins a tight spiral, redshirt freshman Chase Mason, who is recovering from a serious knee injury, is built like a man-child, but there is just something different about the way the ball comes off the right arm of the redshirt freshman Jon Bell.

SDSU redshirt freshman Quarterback Jon Bell

Every name I just mentioned has several years left of eligibility, including Gronowski. Heck, coming out of high school, Mason had offers from the likes of Kansas State and Fresno State; who knows what kind of player he could become once healthy. So, there’s no guarantee Bell ever gets the opportunity to really prove himself as the Jacks quarterback of the future.

While his game will need developing, his arm talent is impressive. His delivery is smooth. I’ve seen him make several throws in practice where the ball was placed almost perfectly. Funny enough, like Gronowski, he also comes from Naperville, Illinois.

Who knows what the future holds for Bell, but it’s someone to keep an eye on down the line.

B. Running Backs

You don’t have to do any convincing around South Dakota when telling people how good Isaiah Davis is. If you’ve watched him play over the past two seasons, you know. But, and maybe I’m wrong, I almost feel he’s coming into the season a bit under the radar.

SDSU junior running back Isaiah Davis

Pierre Strong Jr. was a stud. There’s good reason he was chosen in the 4th round of last years NFL draft. Yet, there was plenty of talk that Davis may have been the best running back on the roster. It will be fun to see what he can do now that’s he the main man in the backfield.

Although Strong is gone, there’s a good chance we’ll see another one-two punch in Brookings. I wrote about Amar Johnson and his future role back on December 12th after SDSU’s win against Villanova.

Much like several of his teammates, Johnson told me he put on close to 15 pounds of muscle this offseason.

SDSU sophomore running back Amar Johnson

Davis can do a little bit of everything, but I don’t know that he’s as shifty in tight spaces as Johnson. The O’Fallon, Missouri native could also be a threat in the screen game this season.

C. Wide Receivers

Back last year when I was putting together my feature story on the Janke twins, one of the several people I interviewed for the piece told me coming out of high school he viewed them as “Big Ten caliber athletes”.

SDSU senior wide receiver Jadon Janke

There aren’t many wide receivers built like these two throughout the entire FCS. They’re every inch of 6’2.5 and hover around a chiseled 210 pounds.

They have the two starting wideout spots locked up. But it’s the slot WR position and the depth behind them that’s most intriguing.

During his first four years of college football, Landon Wolf caught 82 passes at Oklahoma State. He would then transfer to SDSU for his final year of eligibility; but on the first play of his Jackrabbit career (last year against Colorado State), he suffered a season ending leg injury.

He’s battled a few other nagging injuries this past month, but he’s now back in the line up and ready to go.

SDSU senior wide receiver Landon Wolf

If you want any idea of how Wolf is viewed inside the program, he’s played one game, one play as a South Dakota State Jackrabbit; yet, earlier this year he was named a team captain.

I’ve only seen Wolf at full go a couple of times, but his quick twitch route-running didn’t take long to notice. He’s exactly the kind of player I thought the Jackrabbits were missing a season ago. Someone who can give a defense fits over the middle of the field that can make a 5 yard catch into a 10 yard first down.

Right now Canyon Bauer is listed as his backup at the “Z” receiver position. I think Bauer fits more naturally outside and will eventually move there, alongside A.J. Coons, once the Janke twins depart from Brookings.

But two names I believe have a good shot to become good players are sophomore receivers Devin Cole Jr. and Tyler Feldkamp.

SDSU sophomore receiver Tyler Feldkamp

Both have impressed me throughout fall camp.

Right now Feldkamp is listed alongside Bauer as Wolf’s backup in the slot, while Cole is listed as Jadon Janke’s backup at the ‘X’ receiver position. I think both of them can line up at either wideout position.

They aren’t nearly as big as the Jankes’, but they’re both very good athletes.

D. Tight end

There isn’t a position group throughout the entire roster that harnesses more talent than tight end.

Pound for pound, there may not be a better athlete on the field than Tucker Kraft in every game the Jackrabbits play this season; that includes Saturday’s matchup in Iowa City.

SDSU junior tight end Tucker Kraft

While his talent is noteworthy; so was his offseason. In this new age of NIL deals, Kraft was offered six figures to play elsewhere, he said no thanks. How many kids do you think would have done the same? Would you have?

One, Kraft has a good head on his shoulders. Why leave? He’s already established himself as a go to player on what could be a heck of an offense. Going to another program would be starting from scratch. Sure, the money would be there in the moment, but if he has a good season, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, the NFL will come calling.

While I’m sure that factor was formulated into the decision to remain a Jackrabbit, Kraft also has an abundance of friendships along with family right here in South Dakota. No amount of coin can buy you that.

Two, it speaks to the program. South Dakota State has become a place where you can chase your dream, no matter how big that dream is. The Missouri Valley is the highest level of FCS football; the best players in this league are no joke.

After one of the first couple of practices I attended, I mentioned to Tucker I thought he looked quicker. He said he’d been working at it and told me, “I’m trying to get to the same place (when running routes) using less steps.”

Kraft may be the headliner, but his counterpart Zach Heins is also one of the best tight ends in the Missouri Valley Conference.

SDSU senior tight end Zach Heins alongside Tucker Kraft

What a luxury to have a 6’7 260 pound tight end with great hands who’s best attribute may be blocking. But I would be remised to mention this group without Mike Morgan.

A few weeks ago I asked the Jacks new offensive coordinator Zach Lujan to give me a name of someone on the offense who consistently works hard, who isn’t someone who gets a whole lot of spotlight. He instantly told me Mike Morgan.

SDSU senior fullback / tight end Mike Morgan

He’s a fullback, he’s a tight end and he’s a hard-nosed football player who understands his role. Within an offense that has so many weapons who will be hungry to make plays, what a nice change of pace Morgan adds. He’s happy to do whatever is asked of him from play to play. That’s valuable.

E. Offensive Line

Of all of the positions groups I’ve spent time around, there hasn’t been one more vocal towards one another than the offensive line.

Almost every practice I went to, at least two NFL scouts from different teams were there as well. I’d often chat with them for a couple of minutes. They would tell me how the numbers of players they were watching was pretty wide at the moment and they would shorten that list as the first few weeks of game film came in.

But I talked to one scout in particular a bit longer. At one point he said, “You really want to know who I’m most interested in studying this year?” I nodded.

He pointed and said, “Those two guys.”

SDSU senior guard Mason McCormick and senior tackle Garret Greenfield

The ‘605 Hogs’ are led by seniors captains left guard Mason McCormick and left tackle Garret Greenfield. I mentioned previously how both have made significant changes to their bodies this offseason.

You can have a team chalk full of talent, but if your best players aren’t your hardest workers, the whole program will be off balance. Watching these two in practice, it’s as if they’re an extension of the coaching staff. They take in pride in the tradition that comes with calling yourself a ‘Hog’ and it shows in their daily attitudes.

Sophomore Gus Miller, who started the back half of last season at guard, will slide over to center. Junior Bo Donald is slotted at right guard, with junior (Bowling Green Transfer) John O’Brian at right tackle. If and when healthy, expect junior Evan Beerntsen to be in the mix as well.

The Jacks will average 6’4.5 301 pounds across the board as a unit.

4. Offensive Summary

The South Dakota State offense is loaded. With so many playmakers, one could wonder if issues may arise if someone is not getting the touches they feel they deserve. It’s a valid thought, but I don’t see that happening.

It’s not like these guys are talented players who are itching to show what they’ve got. They’re known. It’s why all 32 NFL teams had a scout at one point in Brookings the past month.

I’m intrigued to watch how the offensive evolves this season under first year offensive coordinator Zach Lujan.

Former SDSU Quarterback now offensive coordinator Zach Lujan

5. Defensive Position Breakdowns

A. Linebacker

They’re probably isn’t a kid on the entire roster more excited about the season opener against Iowa than Adam Bock. The junior attended Solon High School located 23 minutes north of Kinnick Stadium. He’ll have around 100 friends and family at the game.

SDSU junior linebacker Adam Bock

The linebacking core as a whole should be solid.

“Linebacker wise, this may be the deepest I’ve ever been as far as the amount of guys that I can rotate and the skill set that’s in the room.”

SDSU Defensive Coordinator Jimmy Rodgers

Bock returns as the teams leading tackler at ‘Mike’ linebacker. He’s an instinctual athlete who will be the quarterback of the defense. Payton Shafer and Savieon Williamson are right behind him in the rotation.

At ‘Will’ linebacker, Graham Spalding takes over a position that had belonged to Logan Backhaus for quite some time. Backhaus missed a few games last year with an ankle injury, allowing Spalding to start. So, the junior from Oviedo, Florida did get plenty of snaps in 2021.

Right behind Spalding on the depth chart is first year transfer Jason Freeman who’s made strides in his first couple months as a Jackrabbit.

“I don’t know that anybody has picked up the defense as fast as he has in two months,” Rodgers stated.

For those wondering, ‘Will’ linebacker is the linebacker position that typically plays on the short side of the field. As for the third backer position, the ‘Sam’ linebacker typically requires an athlete who is more comfortable playing in space, which is exactly why a season ago Isaiah Stalbird seemed like the perfect candidate to make the switch from safety to ‘Sam’.

Isaiah Stalbird enters his second season at linebacker

I thought Stalbird played well recording 73 tackles and 5.5 for loss. He may be the most versatile player throughout the defense. Don’t be surprised if you see him lined up back at safety from time to time.

Caleb Francl will also see time at ‘Sam’. The official team roster still lists him at 185 pounds, but there’s no way that’s the case. He’s clearly taken his craft serious this offseason and I look forward to seeing how it shows up on the field.

When talking to Defensive Coordinator Jimmy Rodgers about the linebackers, he also mentioned both Daeton Mcgaughy, also a converted safety, and Davion Sterner have stood out, and neither showed up and the two deep depth chart; further highlighting the depth they posses.

SDSU junior linebacker Daeton Mcgaughy

B. Secondary

You can only list two starters at cornerback, but the Jacks have four guys who can get the job done at a high level.

SDSU senior cornerbacks Malik Lofton and Dyshawn Gales

After solid campaigns a year ago, seniors Malik Lofton and Dyshawn Gales return as the starting cornerbacks. But waiting in the wings behind them are two talented ball players who should see plenty of PT this season.

Only starting one game in 2021, Dalys Beanum led the team in interceptions with four; two of which he took back to the house.

Dalys Beanum celebrating with teammates after a pick six against Dixie State

But there may be no one with a higher ceiling in the Jackrabbit secondary than Steven Arrell.

SDSU sophomore cornerback Steven Arrell

In every sport (none worse than basketball) most teams exaggerate their player’s heights. But Arrell is every inch of his listed 6’2. He’s 5-7 pounds of muscle away from looking the part of an ideal NFL type cornerback.

He’s looked good in practice, and I know the staff is high on him. His progression will be one to follow through out the season.

The coaching staff seems very comfortable with the safeties.

Cale Reeder returns at free safety, while Chase Norblade takes over at strong safety where Michael Griffin was a year ago. Both returning letterman played a lot of football in 2021.

SDSU senior safety Chase Norblade

Colby Huerter and Matthew Durrance are next in line rotation wise.

This unit led the conference a season ago with 21 interceptions, but they did allow 241 yards per game through the air, checking in at 8th out of 11 teams in the MVC. So, there is room for improvement.

C. Defensive Line

The defensive line was just fine last season, but if the Jacks are going to accomplish what they’ve set out to do, they need to be even better in 2022.

SDSU’s defensive line working together in practice

Caleb Sanders was a second team all-conference performer with a team leading 6.5 sacks. Reece Winkelman was a second team all-conference performer leading the way with 13.5 tackles for loss.

Both return this season.

SDSU senior defensive end Reece Winkelman

The Jacks gave up a rock solid 19.7 PPG in 2021, third best in the conference.

They were stout in the run, giving up just 109.9 yards per game, again good for third in the league.

They recorded an impressive 37 sacks, ranking them second in the MVC behind only one team, the North Dakota State Bison who had a whopping 49 sacks a season ago.

Last year during the 31-17 semifinal loss against Montana State, SDSU failed to record a single sack, while giving up nearly a season high 176 yards on the ground (183 yards against Southern Illinois was the most allowed).

The ‘Chain Gang’ was really good in 2021, the numbers reflect that. Going to an FCS semifinal is really good too, but the program has set the bar at greatness.

Cade Terveer, fresh off a big postseason, will start opposite of Winkelman at defensive end, while Ryan Van Marel will anchor the nose tackle position.

Watching in practice I was impressed with how well Jarod Depriest moves at his size, while Caden Johnson was a name mentioned by SDSU Defensive Line Coach Christian Smith as someone who had a good camp.

They’re probably the most competitive group throughout the team because there isn’t a huge gap of separation talent wise between the rotational players. They have a lot of dudes who can play. It’s a group that could go as deep as 10-11 players in the rotation.

6. Defensive Summary

Unlike a skill position on offense, it’s more difficult to get a good feel for the kind of player a kid can be who lines up defensively because so much of defense has to do with tackling. There aren’t many times a team is going to go full go in the month of August. It’s just not worth the risk. So, we’ll know a lot more about the Jackrabbit defense come Saturday and beyond.

7. True Freshman

There’s 29 true freshman listed on the roster. Several of these kids that I do not mention will surely become good players. I just wanted to name a few that have flashed while I’ve been at practice.

During one on one drills, cornerback Jalen B. Lee has held his own. He could see the playing field sooner rather than later during his time in Brookings.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, safety Dontay Johnson will one day be a playmaker, while fellow first year Jackrabbit Bryce Johnson, a linebacker, is not built like a typical freshman.

SDSU freshman linebacker Bryce Johnson

At running back, Derrick Johnson is a big kid who moves well. He could be a problem down the line.

It seems to be a talented class as a whole, but the freshman tight ends are really something.

A person can be as gifted as they come. If the drive and dedication is not there, those gifts will forever stay potential.

If David Alpers and Greyton Gannon put in the time over the years, I would be very surprised if both do not turn out to be very good football players.

SDSU freshman tight end David Alpers

The final freshman I wanted to mention is a kid who if he had played his high school football in Chicago, is probably on a Big Ten roster today. I have little doubt in my mind.

Whether it was because he did not play football from the very start of his high school career, or because he was simply never discovered by larger universities growing up in Topeka, Kansas, or there’s another factor I’m unaware of, what an incredible find and get for South Dakota State with Brody Gormley.

Go watch some of his high school clips. How fluid of an athlete he is at his size (6’7 225) is pretty remarkable.

He’ll be making the switch from a wide receiver in high school to tight end in college. So, learning how to play with his hand in the ground will be an adjustment.

For the sake of thought… with such a deep tight end room for years to come (which includes Reagan Bollweg and Nate Sullivan Jr. both of whom I’ve seen make nice plays) the Jacks should at least consider moving Gormley to defensive end. The kid did have 10 sacks during his senior year of high school.

With that kind of athleticism, if he can add 15-20 pounds to his frame, and of course has the right kind of mindset to play along the defensive line, watch out.

Whatever the case, if he sticks with it and keeps his head on straight, he has a very bright future ahead of himself.

8. Final Notes:

The team captains this year are the following seven players:

Senior Mason McCormick

Senior Caleb Sanders

Junior Adam Bock

Senior Garret Greenfield

Senior Landon Wolf

Sophomore Mark Gronowski

Senior Reece Winkelman