Around the Valley: Offensive line improvement a primary focus for UND
Fighting Hawks, 5-6 a year ago, will try to avoid the close losses
FARGO — Only 10 points separated the University of North Dakota from closing the regular season last year with six straight wins. UND won three of those, but dropped the other three by four points or less.
If the Fighting Hawks’ fortunes are to change in 2022, figuring out a way to win at the wire will be one priority.
Returning are two of their primary playmakers in quarterback Tommy Schuster and receiver Bo Belquist. Schuster completed 237 of 362 passes (65%) with 13 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
Backup quarterback Quincy Vaughn also played in 11 games in the Hawks’ two-QB system, with Vaughn primarily the running part of the equation. Schuster garnered most of the plays, but Vaughn had his place in the offense.
“I think we’re in a better spot quarterback-wise with the guys in our system,” said UND head coach Bubba Schweigert. “It gives you some options to hone in on the skills of each guy. Tommy is steady and Quincy is a big, physical guy who gives us a different look back there.”
Belquist had 52 receptions and five touchdowns. The Hawks have one of the best tight ends in the league in junior Adam Zavalney, who had 20 receptions and four touchdowns a year ago.
Veteran Garret Maag returns for his fifth season thanks to the extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic. He has 118 career receptions with a career high of 59 in 2019.
Statistically last year, UND finished in the middle of the pack of virtually every major category and the Hawks’ record reflected that. They finished 3-5 in the Valley and 5-6 overall.
One of the narrow defeats was a 16-10 loss to North Dakota State at the Alerus Center, a game in which the Bison put on a late drive to ice it. The teams play in the last regular season game of the season this year Nov. 19 at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
What needs to change this season for UND?
An improvement in the offensive line is a priority, Schweigert said. The Fighting Hawks are looking to offensive guards Donny Ventrelli and Easton Kilty, specifically, to provide better production for the offense.
The senior Ventrelli was moved back inside after being moved to tackle last season. Kilty, a sophomore, is a returning starter with sophomore Jack Kuntz and redshirt freshman Sam Hagen, two in-state recruits, in the mix. Kuntz is from Devils Lake and Hagen from Fordville.
“Those guys have to come around,” Schweigert said.
They’ll be counted on to pave the way for Isaiah Smith and Luke Skokna, the top two returning rushers after leading ground gainer Otis Weah left the team. Smith averaged 6.8 yards per carry.
UND also has hopes for senior Tyler Hoosman, a senior transfer from Northern Iowa.
“He knows the intensity of these games and the quality of play in these games,” Schweigert said.
Defensively, leading tackler and linebacker Devon Krzanowski is back. The other three spots in UND’s 3-4 system will be manned by either a backup from 2021 or an untested newcomer.
The three starting defensive linemen — Jaelen Johnson, Ben McNaboe and Jalen Morrison — all played a year ago.
“We have more experience coming back up front,” Schweigert said.
Today: North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Day 5: Northern Iowa Panthers
Day 6: South Dakota Coyotes
Day 7: South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Day 8: Southern Illinois Salukis
Day 9: Western Illinois Leathernecks
Day 10: Youngstown Penguins