Coaches expect another battle for RMAC crown

CMU’s Dustin Rivas, 20, far left, blocked four kicks last season, including this field goal against Azusa Pacific in the final regular-season game of 2016, and enters his senior year as the RMAC preseason special teams player of the year.



The Colorado Mesa defense stops CSU-Pueblo quarterback Rex Dausin from scoring Saturday on the final play of the Mavericks’ 20-19 victory at Stocker Stadium. The win, Mesa’s first over the ThunderWolves in five years, put CMU in the driver’s seat in the RMAC.



Colorado Mesa’s Steven Sumey, 23, and Darian Turner, 31, celebrate Saturday after the Mavs’ 20-19 victory over CSU-Pueblo. Colorado Mesa’s first five games were against teams picked to finish in the top six of the RMAC, and the Mavs won them all.



Colorado Mesa’s Zac Owen sacks Chadron State quarterback TD Stein, one of three sacks Saturday by the Mavericks in a 47-33 victory over the Eagles at Stocker Stadium.



Tri-champions in 2016, and there could be even more teams fighting for one of those big banners this football season in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

One point separated CSU-Pueblo and Colorado Mesa in the coaches preseason poll, which was the Mavs’ winning margin on the field last season. Colorado Mines, Dixie State and Black Hills State should compete for the title, and, CMU coach Russ Martin cautioned, there’s no sure-fire win any week of the season.

Division II football officials will continue to put an emphasis on targeting, erring on the side of caution, said RMAC head of officials Gene Bouwman.

The officials have been told to throw the flag if there’s any question of a player launching himself toward another player’s head, or helmet-to-helmet contact that isn’t clearly accidental. Video review is still several years away at the Division II level, Bouwman said, with the only reviewable play a first-half targeting ejection, which can be overturned during halftime review.

One change was made in an effort to speed up games, which is limiting halftime to 20 minutes, with no exceptions, so marching bands cannot refuse to yield. In the past, the conference could approve a 5-minute extension for homecoming or special recognitions, but that is no longer an option.

A look at the Mavericks’ RMAC opponents, in order of predicted finish by the conference coaches (CMU was picked to finish second):

COLORADO STATE-PUEBLO

(8-3, 8-2 RMAC)

Coach: John Wristen (10th season, 88-21)

Returning starters: 9 offensive, 4 defensive

Key players: Bernard McDondle (RB, Sr., 5-9, 185); Corbin Feenstra (OL, Sr., 6-3, 280); Zach Boyd (TE, Sr., 6-4, 248); Brandon Payer (LB, Jr., 6-3, 229); Josh Croy (DL, Sr., 6-4, 269); Darius Williams (DB, Jr., 5-11, 180)

Outlook: The ThunderWolves were left out of the playoffs last season despite finishing in a three-way tie atop the RMAC with Colorado Mesa and Colorado Mines, which were the two teams CSU-Pueblo lost to in conference play. All but two starters return on offense for coach John Wristen, the dean of RMAC coaches, with four senior offensive linemen back to block for all-conference back Bernard McDondle and protect senior quarterback Rex Dausin. Linebacker Brandon Payer leads an inexperienced defense, but the T-Wolves got defensive end Josh Croy back after missing all of last season with an injury. If the defense comes around quickly under new co-coordinators Mark Criner and Donnell Leomiti, CSU-Pueblo should again be in the thick of another title hunt.

COLORADO MINES

(10-3, 8-2 RMAC)

Coach: Gregg Brandon (3rd season, 18-6)

Returning starters: 4 offensive, 5 defensive

Key players: Brody Oliver (WR, Jr., 6-3, 195); Zac Guy (RB, Sr., 5-11, 185); Colin Peter (OT, Sr., 6-3, 275); Drew Stephon (S, Sr., 5-11, 185); Dean Wenger (LB, Sr., 5-11, 195); Grant Gale (LB, Jr., 6-0, 205)

Outlook: Record-setting quarterback Justin Dvorak, the 2016 Harlon Hill winner, has graduated. Record-setting wide receiver Brody Oliver, who scored 26 touchdowns, more than any NCAA player at any level last season, is back and only a junior. The Orediggers, who reached the second round of the Division II playoffs last season, must find someone to get him the football, and they have 10 QBs on the roster, four of whom are freshmen and likely headed for a redshirt year. Cody Limmer, a junior who played in eight games last season, but threw only 13 passes (completing 11 for 94 yards) appears to be the heir apparent.

DIXIE STATE

(6-5, 6-4 RMAC)

Coach: Shay McClure (2nd season, 6-5)

Returning starters: 9 offensive, 10 defensive

Key players: Tim Ah Hee (OL, Sr., 6-4, 300); Josh Thompson (QB, Soph., 6-0, 180); Orlando Wallace (WR, Jr., 5-11, 180); Colton Olson (DB, Sr., 6-2, 205); Jaylen Moore (DB, Soph., 6-0, 175); Remington Kelly (DL, Jr., 6-3, 235)

Outlook: This is the final year of the Trailblazers being an affiliate member of the RMAC — all sports join the conference in the 2018-19 school year. Second-year coach Shay McClure has his system in place, and with nearly as many starters returning as Colorado Mesa (22, including a pair of kickers and a punter), look for Dixie to make plenty of noise this season. Quarterback Josh Thompson threw for 1,150 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman, but needs to cut down on interceptions (11).

BLACK HILLS STATE

(7-4, 6-4 RMAC)

Coach: John Reiners (6th season, 17-38)

Returning starters: 9 offensive, 6 defensive

Key players: Ryan Hommel (QB, Jr., 6-2, 200); Phydell Paris (RB, Sr., 5-10, 207); Shandon Jones (WR, Sr., 6-2, 200); Thayer Sauter (LB, Sr., 6-2, 245); Luis Bach (DB, Jr., 6-3, 213); Isaiah Birkel (LB, Sr., 6-0, 234)

Outlook: The YellowJackets went from an 0-11 season (0-9 RMAC) in 2015 to a fifth-place tie in 2016. With the return of Phydell Paris, who rushed for 1,351 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, and four starters on the offensive line, junior quarterback Ryan Hommel is positioned to have a big year. He threw nearly as many interceptions (12) as touchdowns (13) as a sophomore, but completed 50 percent of his passes for 2,277 yards. Thayer Sauter leads a good group of returning linebackers and defensive backs. Don’t be surprised to see the ‘Jackets push the three prohibitive favorites in the conference.

SOUTH DAKOTA MINES

(5-6, 4-6 RMAC)

Coach: Zach Tinker (2nd season, 5-6)

Returning starters: 7 offensive, 5 defensive

Key players: Jake Sullivan (QB, Jr., 6-0, 184); Robbie Jo Geraden (PK, Jr., 5-10, 185); Isaiah Manley (WR, Sr., 5-10, 170); EJ DeVeaux (DB, Sr., 5-11, 187); Blake Stone (SS, Sr., 5-9, 190); Chris Counce (MLB, Jr., 5-11, 212)

Outlook: The Hardrockers also made big strides last season in Zach Tinker’s first year, and Jake Sullivan is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference (1,897 passing yards, 19 TDs; 478 rushing yards, 8 TDs). South Dakota Mines is young in the defensive secondary, and needs to get stingier after allowing 37 points and more than 400 yards of offense a game. The Hardrockers lost their final five games of 2016 after a 5-1 start.

WESTERN STATE

(7-4, 7-3 RMAC)

Coach: Jas Baines (7th season, 19-47)

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 3 defensive

Key players: Markeith McDonald (WR, Sr., 6-4, 180); Rodray Perkins (WR, Jr., 5-7, 175); Andy Armstrong (OL, Sr., 6-5, 270); Victor Alvarez (DL, Sr., 6-1, 245); Will Halligan (DB, Sr., 5-11, 185); David Velazquez (CB, Jr., 5-9 170)

Outlook: The number of returners might not stand out as much as two key losses to graduation: quarterback Brett Arrivey and All-American running back Austin Ekeler. Arrivey threw for 2,021 yards and 17 touchdowns, and Ekeler proved once again to be the elite running back in the conference and one of the best in the nation, with 1,495 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. Western will have to find other avenues to the end zone, starting with wide receivers Markeith McDonald and Rodray Perkins. Look for the Mountaineers to hang their hat on defense under second-year coordinator Todd Auer.

CHADRON STATE

(3-8, 3-7 RMAC)

Coach: Jay Long (6th season, 33-23)

Returning starters: 6 offensive, 9 defensive

Key players: Derek Jackson (RB, Sr., 5-9, 190); Matt Barden (OL, Sr., 6-3, 295); TD Stein (QB, Soph., 6-0, 208); Collin Eisenman (OLB, Sr., 6-4, 246) Ryan Wood (S, Sr., 6-1, 195); Truett Box (DT, Sr., 6-2, 280)

Outlook: Quarterback TD Stein missed fall camp with an ankle injury and won’t be ready for the season opener. Redshirt freshman Dalton Holst will likely start at quarterback, with senior Matt Vinson backing him up. The receivers are young and speedy, and senior running back Derek Jackson rushed for more than 500 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Eagles are used to being at the top of the conference standings, and don’t be surprised to see them push to return this season.

FORT LEWIS

(4-7, 3-7 RMAC)

Coach: Joe Morris (1st season, 0-0)

Returning starters: 4 offensive, 6 defensive

Key players: PJ Hall (RB, Sr., 5-5, 195); Bo Coleman (QB, Jr., 6-2, 184); AJ Shaw (TE, Sr., 6-3, 240); Dre Cortez (DB, Jr., 5-10 163); OJ Thompson (DL, Sr., 6-2, 224); Michael Molina (DL, Sr., 5-11, 283)

Outlook: Former Fort Lewis standout linebacker Joe Morris takes over as the interim head coach after Ed Rifilato abruptly resigned this summer, but is staying on as an assistant. The Skyhawks return two key elements to their offense from last season, quarterback Bo Coleman (9 starts, 95 of 167 passing, 1,509 yards, 19 TDs, 8 interceptions) and diminutive running back PJ Hall (158 carries, 807 yards, 2 TDs), who’s as hard to tackle as he is to see behind the line. OJ Thompson will be a force on the defensive line as one of three of the Skyhawks’ top eight tacklers returning. Thompson had 57 tackles and 4½ sacks last season. Fort Lewis lost five conference games in 2016 by 7 points or fewer.

ADAMS STATE

(2-8, 2-8 RMAC)

Coach: Timm Rosenbach (3rd season, 5-16)

Returning starters: 5 offensive, 3 defensive

Key players: James Holtrop (WR, Sr., 5-11, 175); Chad Hovasse (WR, Jr., 6-1, 215); Jorge Hernandez (QB, Sr., 6-0, 180); Tim Brown Jr. (CB, Sr., 5-11, 185); Gilbert Morris (DB, Jr., 6-0, 200); Ashton Lawson (DB, Soph., 6-0, 170)

Outlook: The rebuilding project continues in Alamosa, but the Grizzlies will lean on preseason all-conference wide receiver Chad Hovasse (826 yards, 7 TDs in 9 games). Jorge Hernandez is back at quarterback for his senior year after throwing for 2,570 yards and 19 TDs last fall. The biggest improvement must come on defense for Adams State, which was outscored by more than two touchdowns a game last season.

NEW MEXICO HIGHLANDS

(0-11, 0-10 RMAC)

Coach: Marty Fine (1st season, 0-0)

Returning starters: Not available

Key players: James Mayden (WR, Grad., 6-2, 195); Jairan Manning (RB, Soph., 5-9, 175); Regan Atkins (WR, Sr., 6-6, 190); Jake Harrelson (LB, Soph., 6-3, 220); Jimmy Threat (FS, Sr., 5-10, 205); Sam Garcia (OLB, Jr., 6-0, 200)

Outlook: Marty Fine replaces Jeff Mills, who lasted only two years in Las Vegas, going 2-20, resigning to coach at training facility in Albuquerque. Fine was the coach at Bryant University in Rhode Island before taking the job at Highlands and faces a massive rebuilding job. Ramone Atkins, the younger brother of receiver Regan Atkins, transferred from Alcorn State. Although he’s a redshirt freshman, Ramone Atkins could compete to be the Cowboys’ starting quarterback.


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