South Dakota State spring football begins with new coach, new faces
Jimmy Rogers takes over Jackrabbits fresh off national championship.
BROOKINGS — The national champions are back to work, barely more than two months after they last took the field.
That was in Frisco, Texas, where South Dakota State whipped rival North Dakota State to capture the Division I FCS title, the first in program history, and now they're back on the field with the start of spring practice, which began last week.
For the hundreds of teams around the country whose season ended in November, spring ball probably feels like a long time in coming. For the Jackrabbits, it's almost like they never left. And it's a pretty good feeling.
"It came quick, but for a good reason," said senior guard Mason McCormick. "It's just great to be back out here. The guys are hungry and excited and with some new coaches it's nice to have a fresh set of eyes on you and get to competing again."
Indeed, while the roster is largely the same with only a handful of graduations from the title-winning team, change is still a major theme, as 35-year-old rookie coach Jimmy Rogers takes over for the retired John Stiegelmeier, who won 199 games and led the team through the transition to Division I in more than a quarter-century as head coach.
But as much as Rogers is a far younger and more intense personality than his predecessor, so far things don't feel a lot different with a new man at the top.
"Yes and no," offensive coordinator Zach Lujan said when asked if it felt weird without 'Stig' running the show. "It's funny, though, I already find myself quoting him a lot more now that he's not here."
Saturday's practice was held in front of a large audience as SDSU was hosting the South Dakota Football Coaches Association clinic over the weekend. Stiegelmeier was there, staying away from the action and chatting with high school coaches, while his old team went through a fairly rigourous workout.
"It's a little different but anybody who knows anything about this program isn't worried about that transition," said offensive tackle Garret Greenfield. "It's weird not seeing Stig out there with his dorky socks and cargo shorts, but it was nice to see him walking around the track today. It gives you a sense of normalcy."
Stiegelmeier himself admitted it took awhile to get used to waking up and not having a football team to oversee. His retirement doesn't officially begin until this summer when his contract expires, so he's hanging around in an ambassador role. But the coach said he'll plan on attending the home games this fall, so long as they don't interfere with the plans he and his wife, Laurie, have made to do some traveling and sightseeing. Several players approached Stiegelmeier for a hug and a 'welcome back' when they saw him Saturday.
"He comes around and it's always great to see him," McCormick said. "He was around a lot in the first few days of the transition, now I think he's kind of giving Coach Rogers space to do his thing. But honestly, the culture hasn't changed much. Jimmy has some new ideas and I'm sure there are a lot of things that have been percolating in his mind the last few years, but the foundation is the same."
As for the work they're doing on the field, there are few questions marks on the roster with so many returners. Tight end Tucker Kraft, cornerback Malik Lofton and defensive linemen Reece Winkelman and Caleb Sanders are the only significant losses.
Still, the players aren't using that as an excuse to be complacent.
"We talk about it every day — what we accomplished last year is over with," Greenfield said. "Whether you were here last year or not, this is a new team. We're still working on getting closer as a team and competing and pushing each other every day. We have to climb the mountain all over again."
The goal, obviously is to repeat as champions, but Greenfield said the words 'national championship' will barely come up this spring.
"That's way off in the distance, not our concern right now," he said. "We're worried about these 15 practices we've got, and even more specifically the next practice, the next rep. I know that's a cliche but that's the only way you're gonna get better and we can all get better."
While Rogers taking over at the top is the biggest change, he's at least a familiar face. The Jacks have several new coaches on staff, as Rogers had several spots to fill. Cornerbacks coach Rob Erickson left to become the head coach at Wisconsin-Eau Claire, running backs coach Andre Crenshaw was hired at Western Kentucky, wide receivers coach Josh Davis is the new offensive coordinator at USD and defensive line coach Christian Smith took the same job at Northwestern.
In their place, Rogers hired Mike Banks (cornerbacks), Robbie Rouse (running backs), Jalon Bibbs (defensive line), Jake Menage (receivers) and Pete Menage (safeties) after moving previous safeties coach Jesse Bobbit to linebackers coach and defensive coordinator.
The Jacks also added Pat Cashmore as a full time special teams coach. That responsibility had previously been divided among the position coaches, and it was perhaps not a coincidence that special teams (primarily kick coverage) was SDSU's weakness last season. They're hoping Cashmore brings stability to the kicking, coverage and return games.
The Jacks have also added a pair of former playing standouts to the staff. Kellen Soulek, an all-conference defensive tackle for SDSU a few seasons ago, has taken on a defensive quality control role, while former Augustana quarterback Kyle Saddler has joined the staff for offensive quality control. Quality control is an entry-level job that typically involves assisting the position coaches and working on scouting opponents, though those duties can vary by program.
This and That
- With Keaton Heide and Rudy Voss moving on, SDSU has an opening for the backup quarterback position, and former multi-sport star Chase Mason is the obvious favorite. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former Viborg-Hurley standout started his college career playing baseball at Nebraska but transferred to SDSU last year. He was in line to earn some playing time but suffered an ACL injury in spring practice, wiping out his 2022 season. It was the same knee Mason injured in high school, but he looked sharp taking reps with starter Mark Gronowski and backups John Bell and Jeff Becker. "I feel great," Mason said enthusiastically. "I can't even tell (the knee was injured)."
- Kevin Brenner, who split time last year between tight end and defensive end, has made the permanent switch to offense and will work exclusively at tight end.
- Defensive end Blake Peterson, who transferred from Iowa State shortly after the national championship, is in uniform with his new team and looked active in D-line drills.
- SDSU will host its Pro Day on Friday morning at the S-JAC. Tight end Tucker Kraft, who could be an early round pick, is the main attraction, but cornerback Malik Lofton, defensive tackle Caleb Sanders and wide receiver Landon Wolf will also perform. Augustana safety Eli Weber and USF running back Thuro Reisdorfer will also be there. Jonathan Shaeffer, SDSU's director of football operations, said 16 NFL teams have already RSVP'd for the event and he expects most of the rest of the league's teams to do so by Friday.