REGGIE HAYES: Making sense of Street & Smith’s preseason ranking of two-time NAIA champion Saint Francis football

University of Saint Francis quarterback Matt Crable drops back to pass during the spring game. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)

This might sound like blasphemy to University of Saint Francis football fans, but I understand why Morningside is ranked preseason No. 1 in the NAIA in the 2018 Street & Smith’s College Football Yearbook.

Understanding why is not the same as agreeing with it.

At first glance, it seems silly. Saint Francis has won back-to-back NAIA titles, including 23 games in a row. The Cougars were 14-0 last season. They have the legendary Kevin Donley still at the coaching helm, and they are 4-0 all-time vs. Morningside. The last time the teams met, in the playoffs last season, Saint Francis won 43-36.

By my unofficial count, Saint Francis returns 16 players with significant starting experience, including Street & Smith’s Preseason All-Americans in running back Justin Green and linebackers Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten.

So why would Morningside be No. 1 and Saint Francis No. 2?

It’s simple: Quarterback.

Remember, I didn’t say I agree with the rankings. I said I understand the rankings.

Morningside, located in Sioux City, Iowa, has its quarterback in place with senior Trent Solsma. Saint Francis is working on replacing (if that’s even possible) graduated record-setter Nick Ferrer.

Is Street & Smith’s placing too much emphasis on one position? Of course it is.

If the Saint Francis defense is as potent and dominating as I expect it will be, it will eat most quarterbacks alive.

There are defensive holes to fill, most notably in the departures of outside linebacker Spencer Cowherd, defensive lineman Eric Hemmelgarn and safety Lee Stewart III. But the returning Saint Francis defense has the potential to be the best in school history, which would be saying something.

Harnish and Dunten combine to be an unbeatable tandem at linebacker. The secondary, led by Willy Cole with Blake Schumacher, Ryan Johnson and Stan Jackson, has a knack for disruption. James Jamicich seems poised to be a monster pass rusher. Marcus Stepp should slide into Cowherd’s spot. I’m only scratching the surface on the talent here.

And yet the fact remains quarterback is such a pivotal position the elevation of Morningside and the (very slight) drop of Saint Francis is understandable.

Solsma’s numbers last season were phenomenal: He completed 309 of 454 passes (68.1 percent) for 4,406 yards, an NAIA-record tying 55 touchdowns and only six interceptions. In the playoff loss to Saint Francis, Solsma completed 28 of 53 for 406 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a pretty good day. However, Saint Francis’ cornerback Stan Jackson returned a late interception for a touchdown, so it wasn’t a great day.

Other standouts returning for Morningside include wide receiver Connor Niles, defensive lineman Chase Reis and defensive backs Xavier Spann and Deion Clayborne. There is plenty of experience back from a team that led the nation in offense (575.6 yards per game) and ranked second in defensive scoring average, allowing only 17.1 points per game.

Saint Francis will be operating with a new quarterback at the helm, most likely transfer Matt Crable.

A new quarterback brings inevitable question marks. Crable has assimilated well and looks the part, but he still has to go out and prove it on the field. He’ll have some competition, but it appears the job is his to seize.

The good news for Saint Francis lies in the offensive pieces around Crable. Green already holds the Saint Francis career rushing record (4,460 yards in three years). He’s a candidate for NAIA Player of the Year. Two of the top three receivers return in Dan Ricksy and Rocky James. The offensive line is being retooled but starts with experience from Austin Smogor and Nick Shoemaker.

In NAIA preseason coaches poll, which is taken once the previous season concludes, Saint Francis ranked No. 1. It’ll likely stay there when the first fall poll comes out. In the coaches’ minds, you’re number No. 1 until someone proves otherwise. That’s not a bad philosophy.

But I understand the Street & Smith’s approach. Last year is over. This is a preview of the coming season, based on what the publication sees and expects will happen. Solsma is the real deal, and Morningside was close enough to Saint Francis last year to have a fourth-quarter lead.

I know the work Donley and his staff do with quarterbacks. I expect Crable will fit in well, develop, and become a solid successor to Ferrer. By the time the playoffs roll around, Saint Francis should be primed for another run.

In the meantime, I understand why Street & Smith’s gives an edge to Morningside. That ranking might also provide a nice little edge of motivation when Saint Francis fall camp opens.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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