Questions surround all programs, though there are arguably more than usual for the Dakota Wesleyan University football team coming off its first losing season under Ross Cimpl.
With fall camp just a week old, let’s stray away from the quarterback battle or need to fill four starting spots on the offensive line. Rather, here are three other questions heading into 2019’s season opener at Dakota State University on Aug. 29.
What will DWU’s run game look like?
Last year’s ground game featured a large dose of Canova native Luke Loudenburg and not much else. He rushed 230 times -- the most since Francois Barnaud in 2014 -- for 865 yards and eight touchdowns on 3.8 yards per carry.
The 5-foot-7, 155-pound back returns for his redshirt-senior season. But adding a couple of wrinkles to the backfield could help after a season which saw DWU’s rushing numbers decline across the board from 2017 -- rushing yards (2,669 to 1,280), yards per carry (5.9 to 3.2) and touchdowns (32 to 17).
While Loudenburg’s 6.1 yards per carry were effective next to Dillon Turner and Hayden Adams’ record-breaking connection in 2017, being the Tigers’ go-to player resulted in mixed results last season.
With an improving offensive line and better reads, he rushed for 123.3 yards per game and five touchdowns in DWU’s final four contests. However, in the prior five games, he didn’t score and gained 44.8 yards per contest.
Therefore, even a position group returning a player with 1,988 career rushing yards could use some help. And the Tigers have options, even if they veer away from an ineffective wildcat with Mitchell native Spencer Neugebauer, who gained 47 yards on 26 carries.
Chayden Fitzsimmons returns, though he only received six carries after a 21-carry, 90-yard performance at Presentation in Week 2. Cimpl has also been high on Jaden Bloemendaal’s development this offseason, while true freshman and former Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan standout Jamin Arend could carve himself out a role.
The Tigers don’t need to go away from Loudenburg, but finding a more balanced backfield would help.
Who emerges as the Tigers’ WR3?
Having multiple options can only help DWU’s new quarterback, but with the graduation of Jonny Withrow, its receiver corps has shrunk to Neugebauer and Daniel Libolt.
They form one of the better duos in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, with Neugebauer ranking fifth in receptions (51) and receiving yards (829) and Libolt finishing ninth in yards (673) and seventh in touchdowns (7). Between those performances, Withrow still leaves a 44-reception, 498-yard void.
Of returning players, redshirt junior Preston Emerson seems to be the biggest beneficiary. He impressed during spring camp after catching nine passes for 118 yards last season, but didn’t catch a pass after Week 3.
However, with three weeks left of fall camp, a freshman could emerge. Or even someone like Jordan Etter, who is competing for the starting quarterback job but also taking reps at receiver. Libolt and Neugebauer both played running back in high school, so it wouldn’t be the first time DWU capitalizes on a position change.
Can the secondary catch up to the rest of the defense?
The Tigers’ defense was a mixed bag in 2018, ultimately ranking ninth in the GPAC at 31.6 points per game allowed.
Their 33 sacks topped the conference and 160.8 rushing yards allowed per game -- the lowest since 2013 -- ranked fourth. DWU should be able to build on that as it returns its top-three tacklers and 29 of its 33 sacks, including Emmanuel Christopher who led the team with five sacks on the defensive line.
Improving in the secondary will be more of a challenge. The Tigers allowed the most passing yards by more than 200 yards in the conference, second-highest completion percentage and fourth-most passing touchdowns. And they have to replace two starters.
The Tigers’ secondary certainly isn’t to blame for all of DWU’s defensive struggles. But for a position group which allowed six passing touchdowns of 49-plus yards as receivers too often got behind the defense, it’s an evident area of improvement.