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College football: Minnesota West to open on the road

BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE Returning sophomores for the Minnesota West Bluejays are (front, from left) Donovan Jackson, Seanquai Harris, Tiras Bolton, Aryl Cinevert, Josue Tilus, Jerrell Allen, (middle) Elliott Oldham, Connor Kiunkel Jon Johnson, Edgar Blackbull, Colin Brons, Daniel DeVivo, (back) Treyvon Reed, Johnte Dawson, Zachary Donner and William Norwood.

WORTHINGTON — Most of the experience on offense is gone. Even more of the experience on defense is gone. So when veteran Minnesota West Community and Technical College head football coach Jeff Linder peers into the crystal ball of the upcoming 2014 season, he comes back with an assessment that is understandably a little bit on the murky side.

“We’ve got some solid players coming in. Some of them have yet to play in a collegiate game,” he said this week as the Bluejays prepared for their first outing, a noon-time road test Saturday at Dakota College in Bottineau, N.D.

Linder, now in his 20th year with the program, is famously driven to achieve. So despite the fact that West returns just five offensive starters and one defensive starter from last year’s 6-3 team, it’s easy to trust him when he speaks with cautious optimism. “We have the talent to have that kind of year. But there are a lot of factors that go into that. And there are a lot of variables that we’re going to know after the first game,” he said.

Variables played a big part in the 2013 campaign. The Bluejays performed well on the field for the most part, and sometimes spectacularly. But the end was marred by incidents at the conclusion of an Oct. 26 state quarterfinal loss at Central Lakes, where physical altercations occurred involving both teams. The entire Minnesota West athletic program was put on probation afterward, and for several weeks the future of the football program remained in limbo while reviews and investigations were conducted.

Football, obviously, returns this fall to Minnesota West. But because of the controversies, the Jays’ recruiting process was hampered. This week, Linder said he would have liked to have achieved higher overall numbers with the 2014 product, especially at the lineman position. Even so, he’s confident that good quality is on hand.

Heading the offense will be quarterback Colin Brons (a 6-5, 205-pound sophomore from Harris-Lake Park, Iowa), wide receiver Elliott Oldham (6-4, 185 soph.; Detroit, Mich.), and linemen Willie Norwood (6-4, 380 soph.; Whitelake, S.D.), Zach Donnor (6-4, 330 soph.; Brunswick, Ga.) and Treyvon Reed (6-5, 320 soph.; Detroit, Mich.).

Brons saw some limited time at quarterback last season. Linder describes him as a young man with natural leadership ability, a calming presence in the huddle and a strong arm. Oldham played every game last year. A leader by example, he has the good hands that can help Minnesota West greatly in the passing game.

Norwood, at guard, Donnor, at center, and Reed, at tackle, are West’s three returning starters on the offensive line.

There are no returning defensive linemen at West, and most of the linebackers are gone. The one experienced linebacker is 6-2, 232-pounder Jonathon Johnson, a Michigan product who saw limited playing time as a freshman but comes back as a sophomore lighter and quicker than he was before.

Another defensive player of note is Donovan Jackson, a 5-10. 180-pound defensive back from Detroit who started last year at corner. Intelligent, hard-working, Jackson is the kind of player who always places himself in good position, said Linder.

One of the Bluejays’ incoming freshmen, kicker Rachel Evans, will undoubtedly draw much attention during the 2014 campaign. Not only will Evans be the first female kicker to perform for Minnesota West; she is a good one. The Godley, Texas, resident was a high school all-star and has made field goals from farther than 50 yards in practice. At the moment, she is recovering from an injury but she could be ready to aim for the uprights in two weeks.

Linder is also fond of two more freshmen, both who are very quick, very fast defensive ends. Stephon Hall, a 6-3, 265-pounder from Detroit, has already been the subject of phone calls to Linder from Division I coaches. Tyler Knox, a 6-4, 217-pounder from Myrtle Beach, S.C., has a big wing span is another exceptional athlete.

The Bluejays return a veteran coaching staff, and a tentative starting lineup for Game One was arrived at by midweek. Offensively — and historically — the Jays are likely to attempt a balance between the run and the pass. Defensively, an aggressive philosophy is the typical approach.

“I’ve been extremely impressed (with the freshmen), especially with the work ethic and the willingness to learn,” said Linder, who, with a 98-75 career record, needs just two more victories to reach 100. “The actual bonding has come a little bit quicker than I actually expected it to. I know we’ll be ready to play. And I know they’ve got all the tools to be successful.”

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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