FARGO — It didn’t take long for the University of North Dakota to figure into the contention plans in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Fighting Hawks spent the spring season near the top of the standings and made a mini run in the FCS playoffs.

The results have UND as a top three preseason league pick when play resumes next month. The sneak preview from last spring has turned into higher expectations in 2021.

“We can’t be complacent,” said head coach Bubba Schweigert. “When you’re young, sometimes you take those compliments and not look at them the right way. For us as coaches and the leadership, we have to keep our guys hungry and moving forward.”

They'll be moving forward with one of the top running backs in the FCS in sophomore Otis Weah. The Moorhead High graduate led the Valley in rushing, yards per carry (7.16) and scored at least one touchdown in every game.

North Dakota State can relate: he had a 74-yard touchdown run against the Bison at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

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“He creates a lot of big plays for us,” Schweigert said. “But he wants to be the complete back, like pass protection. He’s hard to tackle and has pretty good speed for a thick, stocky guy. He can score from a long way.”

UND also returns quarterback Tommy Schuster, the preseason first team QB in the Valley who completed 129 of 197 passes (65%) with 10 touchdown passes against five interceptions. Schweigert would like to see him make more plays with his feet this fall.

Still to be determined is the health status of three key players: receivers Brock Boltmann and Bo Belquist and safety Jordan Canady. All three are recovering from various leg injuries.

All three could be ready for the season opener at Idaho State on Sept. 4, although Schweigert doesn’t appear to be in the mood to rush them back. Belquist will return at some point early in the season and the last report on Canady was encouraging.

But Boltmann has had the longest road in trying to return. The junior was hurt in fall practice and did not play last year after a 2019 season that saw him be a dual threat at quarterback and receiver.

He was the team’s third leading rusher and was fourth in receptions.

“He’s a dynamic player and we need to see where he fits into the team,” Schweigert said. “He was quite a weapon the last time he was able to play.”

UND finished 4-1 in the league last spring and 5-2 overall. It handled Missouri State 44-10 in a first round playoff game before seeing its season end in a 34-21 loss at James Madison. That was on May 2.

Like everybody else, the Hawks have spent their time since trying to return to a more normal offseason schedule.

“We wanted to be aware of how our guys were feeling physically and mentally after the spring season,” Schweigert said. “We started later than we normally do, got a little break for rest and recovery. I think we’re in a pretty good spot now.”

There won’t be much rest in hitting the road for the first two games. After the Saturday opener at Idaho State, the Hawks will fly west again for a Friday night game at Utah State. The first game at the Alerus Center is Sept. 18 against Drake with a Valley showdown looming two weeks later in the conference opener against NDSU, also at home.

“We know we have to compete at a high level every week in this conference,” Schweigert said.

Here's a look at the schedule for the Kicking Through COVID series:

July 30: Illinois State

July 31: Indiana State

Aug. 1: Missouri State

Aug. 2: North Dakota

Aug. 3: North Dakota State

Aug. 4: Northern Iowa

Aug. 5: South Dakota

Aug. 6: South Dakota State

Aug. 7: Southern Illinois

Aug. 8: Western Illinois

Aug. 9: Youngstown State