BROOKINGS — The national champions are back at work, little more than two months after they last took the field.

That was in Frisco, Texas, where South Dakota State defeated rival North Dakota State to win the FCS Division I title, the first in program history, and now they’re with the start of spring training, which began this week, back on the field.

For the hundreds of teams across the country whose season ended in November, the Spring Ball may seem a long way off. For the jackrabbits, it’s almost like they never left. And it’s a pretty good feeling.

“It came quickly, but for good reason,” senior guard Mason McCormick said. “It’s just great to be back out here. The lads are hungry and excited and with some new coaches it’s nice to have a fresh look at you and be able to compete again.”

Though the roster is largely the same with just a handful of graduations from the title-winning team, change is still a major issue with 35-year-old rookie coach Jimmy Rogers taking over for retired John Stiegelmeier, who won 199 games and led the team in more than a quarter of a century as head coach through the transition to Division I.

SDSU center Gus Miller delivers a block during spring training drills Saturday, March 25, 2023 at SJAC in Brookings.

Matt Zimmer/Forum News Service

But as much as Rogers is a significantly younger and more intense personality than his predecessor, having a new man at the helm doesn’t feel much different so far.

“Yes and no,” said offensive coordinator Zach Lujan when asked if it felt weird without “Stig” directing the show. “It’s funny though, I find myself quoting him a lot more now that he’s not here.”

Saturday’s practice was held in front of a large crowd as SDSU hosted 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 some pretty tough training.

South Dakota State Soccer Coach Jimmy Rogers speaks to his team after practice Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the SJAC in Brookings.

Matt Zimmer/Forum News Service

“It’s a little bit different, but anyone who knows anything about this program isn’t worried about that transition,” said offensive tackle Garret Greenfield. “It’s weird not to see Stig out there in his silly socks and cargo shorts, but it was nice to see him out on the track today. It gives you a sense of normalcy.”

Stiegelmeier himself admitted that it took a while to get used to waking up and not supervising a football team. His retirement doesn’t officially start until this summer when his contract expires, so he’s hanging around in an ambassador role. But the manager said he plans to attend the home games this fall as long as they don’t disrupt plans he and his wife Laurie have made to do some travel and sightseeing. Several players asked Stiegelmeier for a hug and a “welcome back” when they saw him on Saturday.

“He comes around and it’s always great to see him,” McCormick said. “He’s been on the road a lot in the early days of the transition, now I think he’s kind of giving Coach Rogers space to do his thing. But to be honest, the culture hasn’t changed much. Jimmy has some new ideas and I’m sure there are a lot of things that have been going through his mind over the last few years but the basics are the same.”

As for the work they do on the field, with so many returnees there are few question marks on the squad. Tight end Tucker Kraft, cornerback Malik Lofton, and defensemen Reece Winkelman and Caleb Sanders are the only notable casualties.

Still, players don’t use that as an excuse to be complacent.

John Stiegelmeier, former South Dakota State soccer coach, chats with a visitor at jackrabbit practice Saturday, March 25, 2023 at the SJAC in Brookings.

Matt Zimmer/Forum News Service

“We talk about it every day – what we achieved last year is over,” 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 again.”

The goal, of course, is to repeat themselves as champions, but Greenfield said the words “national championship” are unlikely to be used this spring.

“That’s a long way off, not our concern at the moment,” he said. “We’re worried about those 15 exercises that we have, and more specifically, the next exercise, the next rep. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s the only way you’ll get better and we can all get better.”

* While Rogers’ acquisition at the helm is the biggest change, he’s at least a familiar face. The Jacks have several new coaches on the team as Rogers has had several vacancies. Cornerbacks coach Rob Erickson transitioned to be 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 over same job at Northwestern.

In their place, Rogers hired Mike Banks (cornerbacks), Robbie Rouse (running backs), Jalon Bibbs (defensive line), Jake Menage (receiver) and Pete Menage (safeties) after he hired former safety 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 shared among positional coaches, and it was perhaps no coincidence that special teams (mainly kick coverage) were SDSU’s weakness last season. They hope Cashmore will bring stability to the kicking, coverage and return games.

* The Jacks also added a couple of former standouts to the team. 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 offensive quality control staff. Quality control is an entry-level job that typically includes assisting the positional coaches and working on scouting opponents, although these duties may vary by program.

Chase Mason rolls out to pass during spring training on Saturday, March 25, 2023 at SJAC in Brookings.

Matt Zimmer/Forum News Service

* With Keaton Heide and Rudy Voss moving on, SDSU has a vacancy for the backup quarterback position and former multisport star Chase Mason is the obvious favorite. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound former Viborg-Hurley star started his college career playing baseball in Nebraska but switched to SDSU last year. He was in line to earn some playing time but suffered an ACL injury in spring training that wiped out his 2022 season. It was the same knee Mason injured in high school, but he looked sharp while doing 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 between tight end and defensive end last year, is making a permanent switch to offense and will work exclusively in the tight end.

* Defensive end Blake Peterson, who transferred from Iowa State shortly after the national championship, is in uniform with his new team and has been active on D-Line drills.

* SDSU will host its Pro Day on Friday mornings at 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 make appearances. Augustana safety Eli Weber and USF running back Thuro Reisdorfer will also be there.

SDSU director of football operations Jonathan Shaeffer said 16 NFL teams have already registered for the event and he expects most other teams in the league to do so by Friday.


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