A FEW MINUTES WITH ... BOB NIELSON
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Since returning to the University of Minnesota Duluth football sidelines four years ago, Bob Nielson has helped orchestrate a run which is nothing short of remarkable. In addition to shepherding the Bulldogs to their first two NCAA Division II national championships (2010 and 2008), he's won 52 of 57 games along the way in addition to claiming a program-best four straight Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference titles (while going 38-2).
Nielson, who is embarking on his 10th overall season of head coaching duty with the Bulldogs this fall (he was at the helm from 1999 to 2003 before stepping aside for four years to serve solely as UMD's athletic director), feels the beat certainly has the potential to go on in 2012 -- and shared his insights as to why.
Let's start with the offense -- you have to feel pretty good about how much of your personnel you retain from a year ago.
I think the strength of our team is just that. From a skill position standpoint, all of our top receivers are coming back. It was a young group last year being our top two ball catchers were first-year freshmen (Zach Zweifel and Aaron Roth) -- and we are expecting all of them to vastly improve and contribute even more this season. We’re very solid at the tight end position and comfortable in multiple tight end formations with Ben Helmer, Jeremy Reierson, Kris Olson and Pat Alexander all returning. You’ll see two to three of those guys on the field at a time quite often. Having a healthy Austin Sikorski back will be a nice plus at running back and with Brian Lucas and Steve Ierulli both returning, that should give us a lot of depth and options running the football. Two or three others such as Chaz Thomas, Jeron Johnson and redshirted freshman Logan Lauters, who had a really good spring, will be in the mix competing for the third and fourth string roles. That's encouraging since we plan on using multiple people at that position. And then certainly having the kind of experience back at quarterback with seniors Chase Vogler and Jon Lynch, plus having Brent Jorgenson back will give us even more depth at that position as we head into fall camp.
Chase Vogler, the second straight fourth-year starting quarterback you've had the luxury of working with (All-American Ted Schlafke was the other), has had a tremendous career so far, but what do you think he can even do better as a senior this fall?
This past spring, Chase made a lot of improvement throwing the football, which is something we really worked on with him -- trying to be more consistent and more diverse in our passing game. As a result, he now needs to show that improvement this season. He is a playmaker and if we can get him to make more plays through the air it is going to make us better offensively. Chase will always be the type of guy that makes things happen with his feet. But we hope that we will be a little bit better balanced offensively this year and throwing more consistently, forcing defenses to stretch the field a little bit. I like the experience in our wide receiver corps there with Aaron Roth, Zach Zweifel, Joe Reichert and we anticipate that will give us the ability to be better there.
Up front offensively you do have some holes to fill with the loss of three 2011 starters in Cory Flesch, Francis Herzog and Eli Kelly.
Flesch, a left tackle, and Herzog, a right guard, were both full-time starters, but returning junior Grant Schnobrich played a lot at center during the second half of the season while Eli Kelly was hurt. Obviously, we are expecting guard Garth Heikkinen and tackle Tom Olson, two all-conference players last season, to be the anchors up front. As for the rest of the spots, I’d say that Andrew Muer probably established himself as a starter last spring at the other guard position. From a returner stand point, Phillip Rutz is also among the group of candidates pushing for more playing time.
Switching over to defense, where you lose some major contributors from a year ago, especially at linebacker where Colby Ring is the only returning starter. Who do you see joining Ring on the starting cast this season?
On the outside, we have Nick Lloyd. He's a senior who's played in the shadows of Derrick Zappa and Rob Huberty the last couple years and is now in a position where he can step forward. Gavin Brown, who we used as true freshman in 2011, has the ability to move into in one of those open outside linebacker slots as well. We also get Nate Zuk back, a guy that missed the majority of the season last year due to injury. Nate is someone we think very highly of, particularly because of his athleticism, but because of injuries hasn’t played very much. With Colby, who led us in tackles last season, we obviously have a very high-performance level player coming back at one of the inside linebacker spots. We also have Gavin Grady on the inside as well as Blake Rogers, who played a minimal amount last year, but will certainly have a chance to make an impact this season. Nathan Zibolski, a redshirted freshman, also had a promising spring spring.
The how does the defensive secondary shape up for 2012?
We do have free safety Cameron Harper and cornerback Kenny Chowa back as starters, but replacements will need to be found for Cody Eich at strong safety and for Joe Doherty at one of the corners. There are two guys who have played a lot -- Jordan Hoekstra and Travis Nordhus -- and are ready to take on the challenge of a starting role. We will need one -- or both -- of those guys to become every down players.
Last year you ranked among the nation's leaders in rushing defense. Can we expect more of the same in 2012?
"We always believe in stopping the run first and overall we were happy with that aspect of our game last year. We didn’t give up a lot of big plays, but one thing we didn’t do last year that we have been better at in the past is generating turnovers. That is something we think we can improve on this year. Part of accomplishing that is being more explosive on the defensive line and putting more pressure on the quarterback. Having Joe Akey returning -- two years ago he was one of the best linemen in the league -- into a line up which features veterans Chris Vandervest, Wade Sebold and Buma Focham gives us some depth up front that we didn’t have a year ago.
You are picked to win the conference for a fifth consecutive year in 2012. A lot of the usual suspects dominate the top of the league coaches’ preseason poll. Do you see the season playing out as predicted with UMD, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Winona State and Augustana occupying the top five spots?
Overall, I think there is going to be a lot of good teams in the league. I think the middle of the conference is going to be better, and we’re going to find out early on just how much better. With St. Cloud, Augustana, Mankato and Winona State having so much experience returning, they should be favored as some of the teams to contend with. Excluding ourselves, we are going to face four of the top five-ranked teams in the first six weeks of our season so it's going to a taxing early-season stretch for us.
Beginning this year, the NSIC will join teams from the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the Great American Conference, and the Great Northwest Athletic Conference to form NCAA II Super Region 3. In the past, that region was comprised of NSIC, Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference schools. Will the realignment make Region 3 even more competitive than it even was before?
I think the change has made this a very tough region. The MIAA has proven over time to be one of the top leagues in the country -- one, two, three or more of their teams always seem to be challenging for the national championship. I don't know a whole lot about the GAC or the GNAC, but our priority is going to be the conference schedule. Our league certainly prepares its teams well for the postseason play because of the off all of the high-quality competition. The NSIC schedule takes on a new twist this year since every single now game counts in the conference standings.
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