SMSU FOOTBALL: Mustangs ready to open up fall camp on Friday

Independent file photo SMSU’s Max Simmons dives for the end zone with 25 seconds left in the first half during their Aug. 31, 2017 game against St. Cloud State University.

MARSHALL – Southwest Minnesota State University officially begins its 51st season of college football on Friday when players report for fall camp under the direction of ninth-year head coach Cory Sauter.

The team will report with equipment check-in and various team meetings, before beginning conditioning on Saturday. The Mustangs have 110 players on the fall camp roster (as of Wednesday) with 42 returning letter winners, including four starters on offense and eight on defense. The roster includes 17 seniors, 27 juniors, 21 sophomores, 14 redshirt freshmen and 31 freshmen.

The Mustangs will practice daily starting on Sunday and are scheduled to practice at various times the first two weeks, before practicing regularly at 3:45 p.m. once classes begin on Aug. 27.

SMSU is coming off a 2-9 season in 2017, including a seventh-place finish in the NSIC South Division. SMSU opened the season winning two its first three games, before losing its last eight games of the season.

The offense returns senior quarterback Blake Gimbel, who missed nearly all last season with injury. An All-NSIC South honorable mention honoree in 2015 and 2016, Gimbel started the first four games last season, but was injured late in week two and played just a few series in the third and fourth games of the season. He finished the 2017 season completing 64 of 92 passes for 734 yards and seven touchdowns.

Gimbel completed a school record 69.2 percent of his passes in 2016 (287 of 415) for 3,030 yards and 24 touchdowns. He finished the 2016 season ranked fourth in the conference in passing and ninth in total offense, while ranking third in Division II in completion percentage, fourth in completions per game, 21st in passing yards and 32nd in passing touchdowns.

Gimbel begins his final season ranking first in school history in completing percentage (67.3), third in completions (660), fourth in passing yards (7,149) and fourth in passing touchdowns (58).

Junior quarterback Boyer Bouman started the final four games last season and completed 106 of 179 passes for 831 yards and four touchdowns.

Junior running back Max Simmons is the team’s top returning rusher after recording 436 yards and five touchdowns on 108 carries a season ago. Simmons, the 2016 NSIC Offensive Newcomer of the Year, led the team his freshman season with 913 yards rushing with 18 touchdowns. Simmons’ 1,349 career rushing yards ranks 14th in team history.

Also returning is sophomore Shawn Griffin, who played in 11 games and scored two touchdowns, while rushing for 212 yards on 62 carries.

SMSU will look to replace its two top receivers from last season, including Nate Huot, who led the team with 85 receptions for 949 yards and six touchdowns. Huot closed his career setting the school and NSIC record for career receptions with 269.

Simmons is the team’s top returner in receptions after ranking third last season with 38 for 311 yards and two touchdowns.

Junior wide receiver Quadri Busari played in all 11 games last season with three starts and finished fifth on the squad with 22 receptions for 213 yards and two touchdowns.

Sophomore wide receiver Gabe Galamue returns after missing last season with an injury. He was tied for second on the team with 39 receptions in 2016, while racking up 449 yards and three touchdowns.

SMSU returns four players who started at least one game on the offensive line last season. Junior Zach Stratmoen started seven games at left tackle, before making four starts at left guard. Senior Nate Van Asperen made five starts at left guard, junior Zach Thissen started a pair at left guard, while junior Nick Guzman made one start at right guard.

On defense, SMSU returns its leading tackler in senior linebacker Alex Ney, who earned All-NSIC South honorable mention honors in 2017. Ney racked up 120 tackles last season, becoming just the second Mustang to reach 100 tackles in season since 2007 and the first since 2013. The 120 tackles is the seventh highest total in team single-season history and also ranked 13th in Division II in tackles per game. He had five double-digit tackles games, including 20 versus St. Cloud State.

Two other starting linebackers return in senior Shane Ratkovich and sophomore Zack Majka. Ratkovich started the final seven games of the season and finished third on the squad with 71 tackles, including 21 at Upper Iowa. Majka ranked fourth on the team with 53 tackles.

SMSU returns a pair of starters on the defensive line with senior Jon Dicke at tackle and junior Tyshonn Woodard. Dicke, a CoSIDA Academic All-American in 2017, started every game last season and finished with 44 tackles. Woodard made 10 starts and recorded 30 tackles.

Both of SMSU’s starting cornerbacks return in seniors Je’Darien Jackson-Hanchett and Hunter Cushman. Jackson-Hanchett had a team-high four interceptions and also had eight pass break-ups, while Cushman finished sixth on the team with 45 tackles and had a pair of interceptions.

Sophomores Lucas Fisher and Shaylar Burnell both made multiple starts last season in the defensive backfield with both registering 24 tackles and one interception.

The Mustang defense was opportunistic a season ago, forcing at least one turnover in 10 games, including two or more in seven games, to help SMSU finish a plus-nine in turnover margin.

Senior Austin Wells also return after handling the team’s punting for a third straight season. He finished with a career-best 38.9-yard punt average with 10 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Sophomore kicker Skyler Crew finished the season with 41 points, connecting on six of 11 field goal attempts, while making 21 of 24 PATs.

SMSU has added several junior college transfers that are expected to make immediate impacts this fall on both offense and defense.

SMSU opens the season on Aug. 30, with an NSIC South Division game at Minnesota State with kickoff set for 6 p.m. SMSU opens its six-game home season on Sept. 8, facing Wayne State for the annual Ag Bowl game at 6 p.m.

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