Year of the QB
The league is so deep in veteran quarterbacks that Sioux Falls senior Luke Papilion, the two-time NSIC total offense leader, wasn't selected as a conference offensive preseason player of the year. Those honors went to Augustana's Trey Heid (Lakeville) in the South Division and Bemidji State's Jordan Hein (Perham) in the North. There are plenty more: UMD returns senior Drew Bauer (Eagan), who has more than 8,000 career total offense yards, Southwest Minnesota State has junior Blake Gimbel, who passed for 3,053 yards last season, and Winona State senior Jack Nelson (Byron), who starts the year just 23 yards shy of 9,000 career passing yards.
Bemidji State tied for the North Division title a year ago but its 7-4 overall record failed to net a playoff bid. This year the Beavers return 11 offensive starters, led by Hein, who passed for 30 TDs and just four INTs. Eight starters return on defense, led by defensive back Gunner Olszewski, who had seven interceptions and a team-leading 85 tackles.
On the rise
Southwest Minnesota State reversed a 3-8 record in 2014 to 8-3 last season, and the upward trend could continue this season. Gimbel, who completed 66.4 percent of passes with 26 TDs and seven INTs last season, heads an explosive offense. The top seven receivers from last season are back, led by junior Nate Huot, who had 63 catches and nine TDs in 2015. Senior LT Grant Greenfield was a first-team all-league pick last season.
Favorites … again
Minnesota State Mankato is again the pick of league coaches as the NSIC's top team. The Mavericks had a fine 10-2 season in 2015 but at one point were 7-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally. MSU lost two of its final five games, including a 51-49 shootout to Emporia State in the opening playoff round. MSU returns senior quarterbacks Ricky Lloyd and Nick Pieruccini, who combined to pass for more than 2,700 yards last season. The defense is led by linebacker Marcus Gordon, selected by coaches as the NSIC's North Division preseason player of the year.
Most schools wouldn't be talking about bouncing back from a 9-3 season, but UMD has a recent history that includes national Division II championships in 2008 and 2010. The Bulldogs failed to advance to the DivisionII playoffs a year ago for the first time since 2008. UMD returns 10 offensive starters, including Bauer, who suffered a season-ending injury in October. The entire offensive line is back, led by three-time All-NSIC tackle Peter Bateman. Linebacker Beau Bates and defensive end Karl Finkel are returning All-NSIC defensive players.