By David Merrill
Photo by David Merrill
Pictured above are SMSU runningback Tyler Tonderum (left) and quarterback Charlie Kern. They are two of three returning starters from last year’s tem on offense. Last season, Tonderum set a school record for rushing yards with 2,145.
MARSHALL- While Southwest Minnesota State returns just three starters from last season's team, the players returning are at key positions and they bring plenty of new help with them.
Charlie Kern returns for his senior season. Last year, Kern threw for over 3,100 yards and 33 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.
He also picked up 460 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
Kern's passing yards, completion percentage and passing touchdowns in 2013 were good for third-most all-time for a single season in team history.
Despite the impressive numbers, those aren't on Kerns' mind heading into this season.
"I'm just trying to lead the offense," Kern said. "We have enough pieces around us that things aren't too difficult. My goal is just to make plays and lead the team down the field."
Kern also has the confidence of his coaching staff.
Coach Cory Sauter saw good things out of his senior quarterback in spring football and knows there will be more to come.
"You feel good about the decisions that he can make and the level of play that he brought last year," Sauter said. "He makes very good decisions with the football and that is evident in his touchdown-to-interception ratio last season."
SSenior Tyler Tonderum had the best season for a running back in SMSU history last year, tallying 2,145 yards and 19 touchdowns. His touchdown mark set a school record and his yardage ranked second for NCAA Division II in the entire country.
Sauter is glad that he has one of his best offensive weapons back for one more season.
When Tonderum looked back at that season, even he was surprised.
"It was kind of unexpected," Tonderum said. It came out of nowhere. Things just started rolling and the offense was doing so well. When I looked back on it, it was just so out of nowhere."
Sauter has since helped refocus the running back's attention to overall success for the team.
Due to last year's successes, a lot of the same mechanics will be at work.
"It's just going in with the same mentality and schemes that we did last year," Tonderum said. "We want to make the run game one of the focal points of our offense to help make the passing game easier. That helped a lot last year, so we're going to try and do that a lot this year too."
After losing their top receiver from 2013 in Anthony Dean, Jordan Cross and Adam Olson return to lead the receiving corps.
Cross is confident in the wide receivers' ability to make plays.
"I know the wide receivers have put in a lot of work over the summer," Cross said. "A lot of these guys have been in the system before and know how it works. It's just a matter of fine tuning the small things."
Some of those small things include route running and making sure they are perfectly in sync with the quarterback.
Cross feels that some of the new plays and game plans the team has been working on will help open up plays for the rest of the offense.
"We want to have a balanced running and passing attack," Cross said. "Putting up more points is something that is always on top of the list."
Last season, Cross finished third on the team with 47 receptions. He hauled in five touchdowns to go with 562 receiving yards.
These are the new kids on the block for the Mustangs. The team will have all new starting lineman this year.
Some of the younger players, like sophomore Grant Greenfield, are going to have to step into leadership roles right away.
"It's been different," Greenfield said. "We have some big shoes to fill, but we are willing to put in the work. The toughest part of the adjustment is being one of the leaders. When you have five seniors up front, but now as one of the older guys, you have to worry about the guys that are new to the system."
Both Greenfield and Sauter feel that the transition has gone smoothly up to this point.
They still have training camp to get prepared before the season opens Sept. 6.
"The biggest question mark will be our offensive line," Sauter said. "We need to make sure, chemistry-wise, we are making progress in a hurry during training camp and staying healthy."
With a bunch of new faces, Sauter is prepared to throw some of the freshman into the game at a moment's notice.
"We're going to have to have some freshmen emerge from this group and be able to travel with us and eventually have to play," Sauter said. "That's never ideal, but that's the situation. We'll get those guys up and trained as soon as we can."
Last year's offensive line helped set school records in rushing yards, total offense, scoring and touchdowns.