MARSHALL - Fall camp officially opened for the Southwest Minnesota State University football team on Wednesday and with it began the official search to replace one of the most productive backfields in school history.
Through the graduation of just three players, quarterback Tyler Peschong and running backs Warren Matthews and Gannon Moore, the Mustangs lost 46 touchdowns, 1,884 rushing yards, 673 receiving yards and 2,423 passing yards.
Peschong also took with him the eighth-most career passing yards in school history, while Moore graduated as the Mustangs' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and Matthews put up the fourth-most rushing yards as a Mustang.
Photo by Travis Andries
Southwest Minnesota State football players walk through the gate at the Schwan Regional Event Center as the team gathers Wednesday for the start of fall camp.
College football teams typically like to use spring camp as an opportunity to answer some of the questions raised by graduation early, but a combination of awful weather and injuries have the Mustangs preparing for a wide-open competition in the backfield.
SMSU had just two quarterbacks on its roster in the spring, but junior Charlie Kern underwent an operation on his elbow and missed spring practice. As a result, Chris Stemen took every snap during the month-long camp.
Kern and Stemen are joined this fall by freshman Blake Gimbel and junior college transfer Cody McCleve in the competition to take the snaps for the Mustangs. SMSU head coach Cory Sauter said he is excited for the competition to begin.
"We've got four guys that will be in camp with Charlie Kern and Cody McCleve. We've got Gimbel coming in, who's a freshman, and Chris Stemen who took all the snaps (in the spring)," Sauter said. "We've got a good mixture of quarterbacks and there will be some good competition there, not just for the starting job but for the backup spot as well. I'm curious to see how that will all play out, but in my opinion, this is probably the best four quarterbacks that we've had as a collective group at one point. I feel very good about that competition and I hope that they're excited to get on the field and prove where they are on the depth chart."
Under Sauter, entering his fourth season at the reins, the Mustangs have used a pass-happy offensive assault, making finding a replacement for Peschong priority No. 1.
Seeing as Kern enters fall camp as the only quarterback to have attempted and completed a pass at the Division II level, he also doubles as the early front runner.
Kern appeared in four games as a sophomore in 2012, completing five passes for 52 yards and one touchdown.
Kern said that he spent much of the offseason trying to make up for the time lost due to his surgery, but says that he is 100 percent for the start of camp.
"(I've been working on) pretty much everything - getting bigger, faster, stronger, getting timing with the wide receivers down, just getting ready for this season," Kern said. "I had elbow surgery, but rehab went really well. We've been throwing for about two months now, so things went really well."
Gimbel, like Peschong, is a native of Marshalltown, Iowa and set Iowa state records for passing yards with 3,979 and completions with 301 in his senior year. He also holds the Iowa single-game record for passing in a single game with 567 yards in 2011.
McCleve, meanwhile, transfered to SMSU after passing for 887 yards and nine touchdowns as a redshirt freshman at Phoenix College in Phoenix, Ariz. He has not, however, played since 2011 and missed his entire sophomore season with an injury.
Whoever ends up winning the starting quarterback job for SMSU this season will have the added benefit of playing behind the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference's most experienced offensive line.
The Mustangs return all five starters from a season ago, each of whom happens to be a senior.
"It helps a ton having the offensive line there," Kern said. "They don't have a problem with anything, knowing their checks. It makes my job a lot easier, knowing my reads and that I'll be protected and we wont have any mishaps up front."
Another added bonus for the eventual quarterback will be the presence of some veteran weapons on the edge. The Mustangs return two seasoned pass-catchers in tight end Cody Condon and receiver Anthony Dean. Like the entire offensive line, both Dean and Condon are seniors, while junior Will Kurka will provide another experienced target for SMSU's quarterbacks.
"We feel like we've got two experienced tight ends with Cody Condon and Will Kurka. Those two have played in a lot of football games and they're very capable of being impact players for us," Sauter said. "We've got two main spots where we've got to find who's going to emerge, at running back and quarterback. Then we've got good numbers at all of our other positions, where we feel confident that we can play all those guys and rotate them."
The Mustangs have 23 days to fill out their new backfield before opening the season against St. Cloud State University on Sept. 7 at Mattke Field at the Schwan Regional Event Center in Marshall.