Breaking down the preseason All-Big Sky list

By COLTER NUANEZ
Bobcat Beat
 
Teams and players interpret preseason all-league lists differently. Some dismiss them while others use them as vindication or motivation.
 
Regardless of what thought process you buy into, the lists are a lot of fun and spark a great deal of conversation as football season approaches. On Tuesday at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, the Big Sky Conference announced its preseason All-Big Sky team. Below is a look at how Colter Nuanez of Bobcat Beat voted and how it compared to the list compiled by 35 media members from across the conference.
 
Offensive Most Outstanding Player
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Dakota Prukop, quarterback, Montana State, junior: When healthy, Prukop proved to be one of the most explosive players in the country in his first season as a starter. In 11 starts, he piled up 3,495 yards of total offense and 31 total touchdowns. He is perhaps the best big-play threat with his legs of any quarterback in the FCS and he was second in the country in passer efficiency.
 
This season, Prukop will have an equally stout offensive line, a stable of four running backs including standout juniors Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke and a receiving corps that features three key cogs who shined last season as freshmen. The Bobcats also add Miami senior transfer tight end Beau Sandland, Baylor junior transfer wide receiver and former Prukop prep teammate Brandon Brown and the freshmen duo of Keon Stephens and Cam Sutton to the mix, meaning last season’s school record of 496 points should be in jeopardy in 2015.
 
Media selection — Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, Eastern Washington, junior: It’s no surprise that Kupp garnered the preseason recognition despite the fact that he’s the first wide receiver to ever earn such an honor in the Big Sky. Kupp, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder from Yakima, Washington, is one of the most productive players in FCS history already and he’s only now a junior. Last fall, Kupp caught 104 passes for 1,431 yards and 16 touchdowns. As a freshman, he led the country with 1,691 yards and he caught a Big Sky-record 21 touchdowns. In just 28 career games, he’s caught an eye-popping 37 touchdowns.
 
Defensive Most Outstanding Player
 
Bobcat Beat pick — James Cowser, defensive end, Southern Utah, senior  — Cowser already has a formidable reputation in the Big Sky — he enters his senior season with 29.5 career sacks — and now it seems he’s destined to become the next great defensive end to come out of the league. The Big Sky has seen some fantastic defensive ends — Montana State’s Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly, Montana’s Kroy Biermann, Idaho State’s Jared Allen and Eastern Washington’s Greg Peach all won the Buck Buchanan Award — and Cowser will threaten all of their records. Cowser is nine sacks away from Allen’s league record for sacks of 38.5 and 12 tackles for loss away from Allen’s all-time mark of 73.
 
Media selection — Cowser
 
Newcomer of the Year — 
Bobcat Beat pick — Beau Sandland, tight end, Montana State, senior: Based on the eye test alone, Sandland should strike fear into the heart of the rest of the Big Sky. But it remains to be seen if he can produce at a Division I level. During spring drills, the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder showed great acceleration, speed and ability to catch balls over the middle. He has possession receiver speed, an expansive wingspan, and abnormally large hands. But he also has just nine catches at the Division I level after spending two years at a junior college and one season in Coral Gables. Still, it seems Sandland’s lack of production has to do much more with the fact that he played behind NFL draft pick Clive Walford and less to do with underachievement. Expect Sandland to be the surprise of the Big Sky this fall.
 
Media pick — The media does not vote on preseason Newcomer of the Year.
 
Offense
 
Quarterback
 
Bobcat Beat pick: Dakota Prukop, Montana State, junior AND Chris Brown, Cal Poly, senior: Prukop may be the most explosive player in the league and he’s certainly one of the most important. But THE most crucial player to his team’s title hopes is Brown. The key to Cal Poly’s vaunted triple option attack is one of the best decision makers in the league and his toughness makes him one of the conference’s biggest game changers too. Last season, Brown rushed for 1,265 yards, a record for Big Sky QBs, and 17 touchdowns. He piled up 220 yards in a win over Montana and carried the ball 39 times as Cal Poly fell just short in a 30-28 loss at Idaho State. Brown’s health will be the key to a playoff run for the Mustangs.
 
Media pick: Prukop
Running back
 
Bobcat Beat pick: Xavier Finney, Idaho State, senior: Despite the fact that Idaho State led the country in passing (348.1 yards per game), Finney still led the Big Sky in rushing last season. Finney averaged 5.8 yards per carry on 259 totes (2nd in the league to Brown) for a league-leading 1,495 yards. He also scored 14 touchdowns. Behind a veteran offensive line that ISU head coach Mike Kramer says is his best ever, Finney could very well exceed those numbers. With 757 yards, he’ll break Josh Barnett’s program record (3,408) and with just 62, he’ll surpass all-time great Merril Hoge’s total of 2,713. With 12 touchdowns, he’ll catch Isaac Mitchell (34) and with 142 carries, he’ll be the most durable ISU running back ever.
 
Kori Garcia, Cal Poly, junior: One of the biggest question marks entering the 2014 season: How would Cal Poly replace explosive slot back Kristaan Ivory after Ivory fell out of favor because of a run-in with the law? Garcia showed that whoever is operating out of the slot spot can be productive. On the heels of Deonte Williams leading the league in rushing in 2012 and Ivory surpassing 1,100 yards in 2013, Garcia proved to be just as prolific. As a sophomore, the shifty 5-foot-10, 195-pounder rushed for 1,039 yards on just 157 carries and caught 17 passes for 146 yards. He totaled nine touchdowns. Cal Poly returns its entire offensive line but must find a replacement for All-Big Sky fullback Brandon Howe.
 
Media picks: Finney and Garcia.
 
Wide Receiver
 
Bobcat Beat picks: Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington, junior
 
Madison Mangum, Idaho State, junior: Mangum can do it all. He can beat you deep, he can catch balls over the middle, he can break tackles and he can block on the perimeter. He seems like a burlier version of Kupp and two sources say he’s up to almost 225 pounds this off-season. Last year, Mangum was Walter Payton Award finalist Justin Arias’ favorite target, catching 83 passes for 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns. Mangum will be even more crucial as ISU works in a new quarterback this fall but having KW Williams (922 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Brock Malcom (428 yards, 7 TDs) flanking him should help.
 
Jamaal Jones, Montana, senior: Anyone who saw Jones in the 2013 Cat-Griz game during a Griz win in Bozeman remembers his excellent hands and ability to go get the ball. Last season, with Ellis Henderson out due to a peculiar illness, Jones earned second-team All-Big Sky honors by snaring 67 passes for 1,044 yards and eight touchdowns. Jones’ numbers should only improve in new head coach Bob Stitt’s up-tempo attack.
 
Media picks: Kupp, Mangum, Jones and Nnamdi Agude, Sacramento State — Agude had a breakout year as the best No. 2 receiver in the league last season. His first two years in Sacramento, he caught three passes. Last year, playing opposite current Baltimore Raven DeAndre Carter, Agude caught 70 passes for 1,156 yards and 10 touchdowns.
 
Offensive Tackle
 
Bobcat Beat picks — John Weidenaar, Montana State, senior: Weidenaar has quietly become a pillar of the Big Sky. The towering 6-foot-9 Manhattan product has fulfilled any expectation of what Montana State thought he would become when the ‘Cats signed him as a 220-pounder out of a Class B school. He’ll enter his senior season with 38 straight starts and he’s now a true NFL prospect who could work his way onto an NFL draft board with an injury-free, dominant senior season.
 
Clay DeBord, Eastern Washington, senior: DeBord is like Weidenaar except his streak is even more impressive. The Asotin, Washington native has started 41 straight games entering his senior season. The 6-foot-6, 305-pounder is a two-time All-Big Sky selection, including earning first-team all-conference and first-team All-America honors as a junior.
 
Media picks: Weidenaar and DeBord.
 
Offensive Guard
 
Bobcat Beat picks — JP Flynn, Montana State, senior: Flynn has quickly established a reputation as one of the Big Sky’s meanest, most intimidating players. The 6-foot-5, 325-pounder may be the conference’s best run blocker and he’s proven his versatility as well, playing both guard spots as well as right tackle during his standout career. He broke into the lineup a month into his freshman year and still earned an all-conference nod. Last season, he was a first-team All-Big Sky selection and is a preseason All-America.
 
 Aaron Neary, senior, Eastern Washington: Neary was a dominant player for most of 2014 but a knee injury cost him EWU’s last two games, both in the playoffs. Still, he earned first-team All-Big Sky honors and was a preseason second-team All America selection by STATS.
 
Media picks: Flynn and Neary.
 
Center
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Joel Horn, Montana State, senior: If there was such an award, Horn might’ve been the Big Sky’s Most Improved Player a year ago. The Kalispell native, a converted guard, went from a player who struggled to consistently snap the ball to a physical, bruising blocker with a keen eye for reading defenses. By the end of his first year as a starter, Horn was a third-team All-Big Sky selection. His formidable size — he’s 6-foot-4, 325 pounds — gives him a distinct niche among Big Sky centers.
 
Media pick: Christian Diehm, Idaho State, senior — Diehm enters his senior season with 20 straight starts and is a key to Idaho State’s up-tempo, read-based spread attack. His pre-snap reads are crucial for a quarterback and his athleticism in the middle is a linchpin for an offensive line that gave up just 15 sacks a year ago despite setting a Big Sky record for passing attempts in a single season.
 
Tight End
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Beau Sandland, Montana State, senior: This is a somewhat skewed pick since I have seen Sandland up close and personal more than anyone in the Big Sky, media or coaches. But when you see him, it’s impossible to not be impressed. If he can stay healthy, it seems he’ll be one of the best red-zone and over the middle threats in the league and a welcome big-play threat for a Bobcat offense with an arsenal flush with weapons.
 
Media pick: R.J. Rickert, Northern Arizona, senior — I also might’ve picked Rickert here if I would’ve known he had a redshirt to use last season after blowing out his knee. The 2013 first-team All-Big Sky and All-America selection missed all of last season but is back for his fifth season. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has 663 yards receiving in his career, but it’s his ability to block while in line or out in space that sets him apart.
 
Fullback
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Nick Butier, Northern Arizona, senior: Butier is one of the Big Sky’s most underrated offensive players. He doesn’t put up flashy stats, but he’s an elite athlete who has forged a unique position in NAU’s offense. He’s part fullback, part H-back, part tight end. He’s earned All-Big Sky honors each of the last two seasons, including first-team honors as a fullback last season and second-team as a special teams player. He’s caught 22 passes in his career and boasts a ridiculous 42-inch vertical jump.
 
Media pick — Butier.
 
Placekicker
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Brad Cornish, Sacramento State, senior: Cornish drilled 14-of-17 field goals last season and hit a school-record 56 extra points to lead all Big Sky kickers in scoring with 98 points. He earned first-team All-Big Sky honors a year ago and should again be the top kicker in the league in his fifth season in Sacramento.
 
Media pick — Cornish.
 
Return Specialist
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Gunnar Brekke, Montana State, junior: Brekke benefited from returning kicks along side Shawn Johnson a season ago, but he still showed tremendous vision and a keen ability to execute MSU special teams coach Daniel DaPrato’s intricate return schemes. The Helena Capital product led the league with a 27.1 yards per return average that included a 74-yard return against Sac State to set up MSU’s winning touchdown in a 59-56 victory.
 
Media pick — Ellis Henderson, Montana, senior: Per the deadline to vote, it was still up in the air whether Henderson would regain eligibility after leaving school last year to deal with an internal health ailment. He’s since been approved and reinstated and is just waiting on an academic waiver to regain full eligibility. When healthy, Henderson is the most electric return man in the league.
 
Defense
 
Defensive End
 
Bobcat Beat picks — James Cowser, Southern Utah, senior: Any time you break one of Jared Allen’s records, you deserve preseason recognition.
 
Tyrone Holmes, Montana, senior: Holmes has a tremendous amount of pressure on him to fulfill his formidable potential. He’s played opposite 2014 Big Sky Defensive MVP Zack Wagenmann for the last three seasons. Now he’ll be called upon to be the next in a line of dominant Montana defensive ends with names like Andy Petek, Tim Bush, Mike Murphy, Kroy Biermann and Wagenmann to live up to. Holmes enters his senior year with 16.5 sacks, the 11th most in school history.
 
Media picks: Cowser and Samson Ebukam, Eastern Washington, junior: In his first year as a starter, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder from Portland burst onto the scene. Ebukam notched team highs with 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to earn second-team All-Big Sky honors. Holmes has more experience but Ebukam’s upside is tremendous — he may very well be the top NFL prospect among BSC defensive linemen.
 
Defensive Tackle
 
Bobcat Beat picks — Taylor Sheridan, Montana State, senior: Sheridan showed toughness a season ago as he battled through nerve damage in both his shoulders. He would sometimes have to leave the game for a series but he never missed a start as he earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a bright spot on an otherwise dismal Montana State defense. Sheridan notched 50 tackles, five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, numbers that are sure to improve in Kane Ioane’s defense, a scheme that should free up MSU’s defensive linemen to make more plays on the football.
 
Tyler Kuder, Idaho State, senior: Last season, Kuder notched 56 tackles, including 2.5 for loss in earning second-team All-Big Sky honors. Finney told me Kuder is the strongest man on Idaho State’s squad and that it’s not close. The fifth-year senior is one of the league’s most formidable physical specimens at 6-foot-3, 311 pounds. If the former Montana Western standout can play to his physical abilities, he should again be one of the top interior linemen in the league.
 
Media picks: Sheridan and Kuder
 
Outside linebacker
 
Bobcat Beat picks — Mario Jenkins, Idaho State, sophomore: Jenkins was a phenom in his first season in the Bengals’ starting lineup. As a redshirt freshman, the 2014 Big Sky Freshman of the Year led the team in tackles with 120. He also had 10.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and three interceptions. But Kramer said Jenkins ran out of gas down the stretch, something not uncommon for first-year starters. Jenkins, who reportedly has added 15 pounds of muscle to get up over 230 pounds, should see a jump in production if he can manage a jump in endurance.
 
Kendrick Van Ackeren, Montana, senior: Despite his size — he’s 6-foot-1, 220 pounds — Van Ackeren is one of the Big Sky’s fiercest hitters. The former Hawaii transfer racked up 122 tackles, including 56 solos for one of the league’s strongest units. The preseason STATS All-America should again be a star in a group that includes standout seniors Jeremiah Kose and Herbert Gamboa.
 
Media picks: Jenkins and Van Ackeren
 
Middle linebacker
 
Bobcat Beat picks — Darnell Sankey, Sacramento State, senior: In 2013, Sankey was one of the league’s better pass rushers, notching six sacks and 10 tackles for loss during an All-Big Sky campaign at defensive end. Last season, you’d never know it was his first playing standup middle linebacker. Sankey is one of the league’s most impressive physical specimens at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds. He runs sideline-to-sideline well and is as good at the point of attack as any player in the league. Last season, he piled up 100 tackles, including eight for loss in earning second-team All-Big Sky honors despite missing the last month of the season due to injury. Sankey and Cowser are the two Big Sky players on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list.
 
Will Ratelle, North Dakota, senior: Ratelle is another impressive physical specimen. He looks as much like a professional wrestler as he does a middle linebacker. His arms and shoulders bulged out of his jersey even when he wasn’t wearing pads during the Big Sky Kickoff. Ratelle is also one of the league’s most underrated players. Despite pacing UND’s league-leading defense with 106 total tackles and 61 solos, he was just an honorable mention All-Big Sky honoree. When the preseason all-league team was released, Ratelle’s name was noticeably absent again.
 
Media picks: Sankey and Jeremiah Kose, Montana, senior — Like Van Ackeren, Kose is a thumper. The former junior college transfer earned third-team All-Big Sky honors in 2014 after piling up 117 tackles and nine tackles for loss. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder is expected to be the leader of Montana’s defense again this fall.
 
Cornerback
 
Bobcat Beat picks — Marcus Alford, Northern Arizona, senior: Alford is entering his second year holding the reputation as the top shutdown cornerback in the league. What the 5-foot-10, 160-pounder lacks in size he makes up for with speed, explosiveness, quick hands and a fearless playing style. His ability to beat up receivers off the line and lock down a portion of the field allows for NAU’s swarming defense to blitz and bring pressure from all angles. A season ago, Alford earned first-team all-league honors after leading NAU with three interceptions. He’s also a threat to score any time he gets his hands on the ball; last season, he had a 67-yard interception return for a touchdown and the year prior, he scored on an interception against UC Davis and on a 96-yard kickoff return against Cal Poly.
 
LeShaun Sims, Southern Utah, senior: His teammates call him “Swis” because when he first arrived in Cedar City, the equipment staff accidentally sewed his name plate onto his jersey upside down. As Sims enters his senior season, everyone now knows his name. Last season, Sims was among the league leader with nine pass breakups in earning third-team All-Big Sky honors. He didn’t nab an interception, but he had three each his freshman and sophomore seasons. He’ll be a key if SUU hopes to fix a defense that gave up 36.5 points per game and more yards than any team in the country.
 
Media picks: Alford and Sims.
 
Safety
 
Bobcat Beat picks —  Taison Manu, Idaho State, senior: Kramer says the most important cog to a defense in the Big Sky is the safeties. Now he’s got a pair of standouts and ISU’s defense is light years better than it was when he first took over. That improvement starts with Manu, a third-team All-Big Sky pick a season ago. The Pocatello native notched 110 tackles and eight tackles for loss last season.
 
Miles Killebrew, Southern Utah, senior: It’s hard to justify three players from a defense as poor as Southern Utah’s was in 2014 getting preseason recognition. But Cowser, Sims and Killebrew are among the top talents at their positions in the league. All three could argue they are the best at their respective spots in the Big Sky in terms of pure production. Killebrew has NFL size — he’s 6-foot-3, 223 pounds — and Cowser told me it’s a draw between him and Sims as to who the fastest Thunderbird is. Last season, Killebrew was a third-team All-Big Sky selection after notching 101 tackles, forcing four fumbles and intercepting three passes, including one he took to the house from 85 yards out against Nevada.
 
Media picks: Manu and Killebrew.
 
Punter
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Trevor Bolton, Montana State, senior: Bolton’s diversity — he can traditionally punt and rugby-style punt — helped Montana State lead the league and the country in net punting a year ago. Bolton himself averaged 44.1 yards per punt, a stat that would’ve been among the best in the FCS if he would’ve had enough attempts.
 
Media pick: Ryan Hawkins, Northern Arizona, senior — Hawkins got the nod despite punting the ball just four times last season. His leg strength was on full display on kickoffs however as he registered 35 touchbacks on 45 kickoffs. Now he’ll take over for All-America Andy Wilder and the Flagstaff elevation (7,200 feet) will play to his favor.
 
Special teams
 
Bobcat Beat pick — Chad Newell, Montana State, junior: Newell may very well be an all-league running back this season and it remains to be seen how many special teams reps he gets if he’s the No. 1 ball carrier. But the Montana State captain has proven to be the best player in the league covering kicks. He earned first-team All-Big Sky honors last season as a special teams player. He also scored eight touchdowns, including a school-record five in a 48-41 loss to South Dakota State in the playoffs.
 
Media pick: Newell
 
2015 Big Sky Preseason All-Conference Team
 
Offensive MVP – Cooper Kupp, Jr., WR, Eastern Washington
Defensive MVP – James Cowser, Sr., DE, Southern Utah
 
OFFENSE
Pos.           Player                               Year        Hometown                                   School
QB             Dakota Prukop                 Jr.            Austin, Texas                                MSU
RB             #Xavier Finney                 Sr.           Oceanside, Calif.                           Idaho State
RB             Kori Garcia                        Jr.            Los Angeles, Calif.                        Cal Poly
FB             *#Nick Butier                    Sr.           San Luis Obispo, Calif                   NAU
TE              R.J. Rickert                        Sr.           Gilbert, Ariz                                       NAU
OG             #JP Flynn                         Jr.            Bettendorf, Iowa                          MSU
OG             #Aaron Neary                  Sr.           Richland, Wash.                            EWU
C               Christian Diehm                Sr.           Carson, Calif.                                Idaho State
OT             *Clay DeBord                   Sr.           Asotin, Wash.                                EWU
OT             John Weidenaar               Sr.           Manhattan, Mont.                        MSU
WR            *#Cooper Kupp                Jr.            Yakima, Wash.                              EWU
WR            #Madison Mangum           Jr.            Boise, Idaho                                  Idaho State        
WR            Nnamdi Agude                 Sr.           Corona, Calif.                                Sac State
WR            Jamaal Jones                   Sr.           Spanaway, Wash.                         Montana
PK             #Brad Cornish                  Sr.           Santee, Calif.                                Sacramento State
Returns      Ellis Henderson                 Jr.            Vancouver, Wash.                        Montana
 
DEFENSE
Pos.           Player                               Year        Hometown                                   School
DE             *#James Cowser              Sr.           Fruit Heights, Utah                       S Utah
DE             Samson Ebukam              Jr.            Portland, Ore.                               EWU
DT             Tyler Kuder                      Sr.           Payette, Idaho                              Idaho State
DT             Taylor Sheridan                Sr.           Littleton, Colo.                              MSU
OLB           Mario Jenkins                    So.           Nampa, Idaho                               Idaho State
OLB           Kendrick Van Ackeren     Sr.           Bellevue, Wash.                            Montana
ILB             Darnell Sankey                 Sr.           San Jose, Calif.                             Sac State
ILB             Jeremiah Kose                  Sr.           Oceanside, Calif.                           Montana
CB             *#Marcus Alford               Sr.           Oxnard, Calif.                                NAU
CB             LeShaun Sims                   Sr.           Las Vegas, Nev.                            S Utah
S                Taison Manu                     Sr.           Pocatello, Idaho                            Idaho State
S                Miles Killebrew                  Sr.           Henderson, Nev.                           S Utah
P                Ryan Hawkins                   Sr.           Peoria, Ariz.                                  NAU
Special Teams – Chad Newell            Jr.            Billings, Mont.                             MSU
 
*Unanimous selection
#2014 First Team All-Conference
 
 

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