A losing mentality permeated the entire Northern Colorado program when Earnest Collins Jr. took over for his alma mater in 2011.
Because of UNC’s proximity to the Denver metropolitan area, the Bears have long had individual talent. Collins’ first season at the helm in 2011, Northern Colorado posted an 0-11 record despite having a quarterback (Seth Lobato), a defensive back (Courtney Hall) and a defensive tackle (Lexington Smith) who got shots with NFL teams. If not for injuries and perceived character issues, Clarence Bumpas, a transfer from Kansas State who was one of the most menacing linebackers in the Big Sky, would’ve likely earned an NFL look as well.
Collins has coached All-Big Sky Conference players like Dominic Gunn, Ellis Onic, Hakeem Deggs, Patrick Walker and Jace Davis. Prior to its Division I transition in 2004 and its inclusion in the Big Sky in 2006, the program built a reputation as a Division II powerhouse. Between Collins’ playing career beginning in 1991 and UNC’s first transition year in 2003, the Bears qualified for the D-II playoffs seven times, advancing to the Final Four three times and winning back-to-back national championships in 1996 and 1997.
But success at the Division I level has been fleeting. Collins took over for Scott Downing, who posted a 9-47 record in five seasons in Greeley. Collins did not win a game in his first season in 2011. In 2012, the Bears won three straight games down the stretch to finish at 4-4 in league play. But the Bears fell back to earth, winning just two league games over the next two seasons.
Collins enters his sixth season at the helm for his alma mater with just 15 total wins, including nine victories in 40 Big Sky outings. Last season, the Bears experienced a breakthrough, however, posting their first winning record of the Division I era with a 6-5 mark.
The success has brewed optimism in Greeley for the first time in more than a decade. The presence of young playmakers like sharp quarterback Jacob Knipp, explosive running back Trae Riek, smooth tight end Michael McCauley, lightning-fast return men Onic and Deggs, and defensive end Kiefer Morris has the Bears thinking they can carry the momentum of last fall’s season-ending victory into 2016.
“Getting buy ins is the No. 1 deal,” Collins said. “The last couple of years, our young kids who have come in, the coaches have done a good job recruiting leaders and picking those guys out when they first walk in the door. As guys get older, they start to create their personalities and you hope that that leadership spills over to the rest of the guys.
“Our team is starting to become a team. It’s not just a bunch of guys out there thinking let me get mine.”
Northern Colorado posted a 3-5 Big Sky record last season, the Bears’ second-highest win total since joining the Big Sky 10 years ago. Although not a landslide breakthrough, the finish serves as a building block simply because Knipp, Riek, McCauley and Morris were all freshmen and among UNC’s best players. Deggs and Onic both earned All-Big Sky and All-America honors as kick and punt returners, respectively.
“We had a lot of young guys playing last year and we saw some success and we had some failure too,” said Knipp, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound in-state product who threw for 1,969 yards and 13 touchdowns after taking over the starting role under center four games into the season. “The biggest thing is to be more consistent. We have some experience but we are still young. We know if we stay together, we can continue improving.”
Riek gives the Bears one of the most electric returning playmakers in the league. Riek averaged 5.9 yards per carry and rushed for 796 and seven touchdowns despite missing all or part of four games last season. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder also caught 22 passes for 344 yards and two touchdowns. Riek ripped off five touchdown runs of more than 30 yards, including three of more than 35 and a long of 64. His receiving touchdowns covered 55 and 68 yards.
Knipp and Riek instantly assumed leadership roles after redshirting in 2014. Production often makes assuming such a position easier for a young player.
“It’s hard but it’s not,” Riek said. “It’s hard because people have to listen to what you’re saying being a young guy because you have older guys who are used to the old ways but eventually people did. If you perform, they listen. It’s a big responsibility because being a young guy, we’ve only been on the field for one year but we have to do our job better than anyone else.”
McCauley, Deggs and Onic all took turns making big plays in 2015. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound McCauley caught touchdowns of 16, 20 and 58 yards in UNC’s narrow 43-41 loss to No. 7 Eastern Washington. Collins says McCauley “could be a really special tight end in this conference.”
Onic is the league’s most dynamic punt returner as he enters his junior season. The 5-foot-6, 163-pounder took a punt 71 yards for a touchdown in a win over Houston Baptist and another 75 yards to the house against EWU to earn first-team All-America honors. The 5-foot-7, 157-pound Deggs earned first-team All-Big Sky honors by averaging 35.4 yards per kick return. He returned a kick 100 yards for a score against Sacramento State and 93 yards for a TD against EWU.
UNC’s four special teams touchdowns led the Big Sky in 2015.
“Coach (Brian) Cummings is a great special teams mind and he preaches the seriousness of special teams,” said senior cornerback Thomas Singleton, a special teams stalwart and a four-year starter in the Bears’ secondary. “That was something that was new to our program and it showed. He wanted us to be first in every category but we were right there in punt returns and kickoff returns. He’s brought a whole other seriousness to the unit.”
Defensively, the Bears return tackle Chutony Johnson, a preseason All-Big Sky selection entering his final season. He’ll be boosted by senior Mikhail Dubose, an All-Big Sky selection who led UNC with nine tackles for loss in earning All-Big Sky honors. Morris, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound in-state product, led Northern Colorado with 4.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman.
“No one cares what we did in 2015,” Collins said. “It’s what have you done for me lately? Those two guys made some big strides. Mikail has been doing it for years. Keifer, I can’t say he came out of nowhere because we knew what we had. He’s put on the weight, he’s gotten stronger and his motor is relentless. We are expecting big things from all three of those guys.”
Senior linebacker Kyle Newsom will lead his position group after notching 71 tackes and 6.5 tackles for loss last season. On the back end, Singleton is a fixture but the Bears must replace AJ Battle and Taylor Risner, the latter a third-team All-Big Sky safety who chose to forego his fifth year of eligibility to pursue graduate school.
Despite the returning talent, Northern Colorado has received almost no off-season recognition. UNC is picked to finish 10th in most major polls, both in the Big Sky and nationally. Collins has preached for two seasons that trophies aren’t handed out in the off-season. For the first time in more than a decade, it seems the Bears believe him.
“It’s all about competitive nature. To us, games are black and white,” Singleton said. “You either win or you lose, you get your lunch took or you take someone else’s lunch. And we hungry.”
Photos courtesy of Robert Trabia, UNC Athletics. All Rights Reserved.