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MW football team opens today at MState-Fergus Falls

The Minnesota West Bluejays football team opens their season today at MState-Fergus Falls. Coach Jeff Linder and the Bluejay players are anxious to get started.

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Returning to the Minnesota West football Bluejays this fall are (front row, from left) Kwesi Hooks, Keanan Harris, Dalton Wagner, (back) Kendrick Gordon, Joshua Okere, Hunter Cam, DJ Thomas and Mylin Duffie. (Doug Wolter/ The Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- This may be the hardest college football season Minnesota West head coach Jeff Linder has ever had for making predictions. A year ago, COVID-19 caused the 2020 campaign to be canceled. Who knows what can happen now?

“It’s really tough to gauge where everybody’s at,” said Linder this week, speaking not only about his own players but also about the other teams on West’s schedule. “We have rosters, but we don’t know about anybody. It’s going to take one week of football before we can watch film to know what everybody’s got.”

Fortunately, the wait is over. The Bluejays open their season at 1:30 p.m. today at MState-Fergus Falls.

“We have the talent. We certainly can play ball. We just gotta be sure we do our assignments and play the game,” Linder said.

Last fall was tough on everybody -- the players, and the coaches, too. After that kind of year, not surprisingly the Bluejays are anxious to play. They’ve worked hard in practice, love the game, and they get along with each other well. Just knowing they have a real football season ahead of them does wonders for energy and drive.

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Most of the Minnesota West recruits, however, are freshmen who have yet to play college football. That ain’t high school.

“The important thing is we do the little things right. And we have to be sure they execute. They have to know the competition level and the speed level is much higher than it is in high school, and they have to practice for it,” Linder said.

There is a sophomore core of eight players, but there’s also a healthy group of area freshmen on hand. It’s fun to see southwest Minnesota kids who last year were rivals, suddenly become teammates, Linder said.

The receiving group is heavily local. Bailey Cowell, a superbly athletic 6-foot, 175-pounder with outstanding hands, is expected to see a lot of action. So are two other area receivers, Tommy Lais of Worthington and Ian Stamer of Adrian. Lais (6-4, 205) is a smart, gifted route runner who always knows where he’s supposed to be. Stamer (6-2, 165) is another well-rounded athlete with good hands.

Two quarterbacks are vying for playing time. Brock Starley is a freshman from Utah who also plays baseball. He’s 6-0, 185, and he’s an intelligent pocket passer. Willard Holm, a 6-2, 190-pound freshman from Zumbrota, also looks good in practice and is more mobile.

Rashard Anderson, a 6-0, 185-pound freshman from Jacksonville, N.C., is a fast and shifty running back with excellent vision.

The Bluejays’ offensive line will be of average size but good quickness. The defensive line is quick, aggressive and athletic. “They’ve given our offensive line fits in practice, but that’s only made us better,” said Linder.

The linebacking group is generally faster than the Jays have had in recent years, and the defensive backs -- led by sophomores Kwesi Hooks and Keanan Harris -- are strong in coverage.

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“I think our defense, like every year, is ahead of the offense,” said the coach. “But we also have more sophomores on that side of the ball. We’re young all the way across the board on offense.”

The coaching group is also somewhat new. West has a new offensive coordinator this year, Connor Kunkel. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Ben DeVries, is moving over to defense.

Just days before the Bluejays’ first game, Linder took his players through mandated COVID tests, and he was naturally concerned that the results -- which he hadn’t received yet -- might force some of his players to quarantine. That’s a worry that other teams have, too, but one that shows that the pandemic still looms as a threat to football.

But as Linder stated openly: It was “tough” last year not being able to play. This year’s better.

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