By COLTER NUANEZ
The preseason recognition seemed like a pleasantry but Cooper Kupp’s dedication to affirm the prediction remains unwavering.
Kupp, Eastern Washington’s all-everything wide receiver, already owns the Big Sky Conference’s records in career receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. The senior could have entered the NFL Draft and been picked in the first 100 selections following a junior season capped by FCS Offensive Player of the Year honors. Instead, he decided to return to Cheney to wreak havoc on the Big Sky for one more season.
On Monday, Kupp received yet another accolade to a career that already includes three first-team All-Big Sky and three first-team All-America honors. Kupp was voted the preseason Big Sky preseason Offensive Player of the Year. The recognition was announced.
“In my mind, everything that happens before the season starts is all speculation,” the Yakima, Washington native said. “It’s someone telling you what you’re going to do. To me, that has no weight. It’s all about what you do on the field and what we do as a team.”
As a junior, the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder hauled in 114 catches for 1,642 yards and 19 touchdowns. He enters his senior season needing three touchdowns to surpass the FCS record of 58 career touchdown catches set by New Hampshire’s David Ball. Kupp needs 486 yards to surpass the FCS record of 5,250 yards set by Elon’s Terrell Hudgins. With 85 catches, Kupp can pass Hudgins’ FCS record of 395. Kupp, the 2013 Jerry Rice award winner as the top freshman in the FCS, has already passed the NFL’s greatest receiver in career college statistics.
“You’ve never seen an MVP play for a team that wasn’t successful,” said Kupp, who’s Eagles lost three straight games to finish 6-5 last season. “Steph Curry wouldn’t have won MVP if he didn’t play for a successful team. That’s something that is more of a testament to what Eastern has done, the teammates I’ve had, the coaches I’ve had.”
The rest of the 29 preseason All-Big Sky team included players from 11 of the 13 football-playing member institutions. Last fall, Kupp was a part of a trio of Big Sky standouts that helped the league sweep the national FCS awards for the first time.
Montana defensive end Tyrone Holmes was the FCS Defensive Player of the Year before becoming a sixth-round draft pick, one of four Big Sky players drafted into the NFL. In the off-season, Montana switched senior Caleb Kidder from defensive tackle to defensive end in an effort to replace Holmes’ production. The first-team All-Big Sky selection was selected as the preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year despite not playing defensive end at the college level.
“You don’t get a lot of statistics if you are a defensive tackle but he was a great player for us last year even if people didn’t know as much about Caleb as they should,” Montana second-year head coach Bob Stitt said. “Now all of a sudden, he’s a force. He’s dropped weight (from 290 to 265), he’s in the best shape of his life. I wouldn’t want to be the guy blocking him.”
Last fall, Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus and North Dakota running back John Santiago were among the best freshmen in all of college football. Santiago surpassed 100 yards rushing in nine games, leading the Big Sky with 1,459 yards and 16 touchdowns in his first season as UND’s starter.
Cookus was even more spectacular in NAU’s revamped spread offense, leading the FCS in touchdown passes with 37. Cookus completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 3,111 yards and posted an FCS-leading efficiency rating of 184.9 to earn FCS Freshman of the Year honors. Both Cookus and Santiago were part of the preseason All-Big Sky offensive squad.
Emmanuel Butler, Cookus’ ultra-talented top target, joined Kupp and Southern Utah senior Mike Sharp on the preseason offensive squad. Last season, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Butler led the league with 18.9 yards per catch. He piled up 1,208 yards on 64 catches and scored 15 touchdowns. Sharp caught 13 touchdowns, including 10 during the second half of the season.
The other skill players on the preseason All-Big Sky offense include Montana State senior running back Chad Newell, Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe and Southern Utah tight end Steven Wroblewski.
The offensive line included a pair of linemen from Northern Arizona and Weber State along with repeat selection J.P. Flynn. NAU senior tackle Jacob Julian and center Blake Porter along with Weber State senior guard Cameron Young and senior tackle Calvin Steyn were named to the preseason team.
Montana State landed three players on the preseason squad including Flynn and Newell despite enduring its first losing season since 2001 last fall. Junior outside linebacker Mac Bignell, the returning tackles for loss leader (20.5) in the league, also made the preseason team.
“Always good to be recognized, but it’s one of the last things on our minds,” Flynn said. “It’s always a quick glance, very cool, that’s the end of it. It doesn’t mean anything until the end of the year as we learned last season. It doesn’t do anything for me. It’s not really my thing.”
Defending Big Sky champion Southern Utah led all teams by placing five players on the list, including Sharp, linebacker Mike Needham and punter Tate Lewis. Wroblewski and defensive tackle Chance Bearnson also were recognized.
Northern Arizona and Weber State each had four selections, including the four offensive selections for the Lumberjacks. The two Wildcats offensive linemen were joined by inside linebacker Emmett Tela and cornerback Taron Johnson.
A summer after providing one of college football’s feel-good seasons, the Portland State Vikings had three players earn preseason nods, including cornerback Xavier Coleman, defensive end Davond Dade and placekicker Jonathan Gonzales. All three were all-conference selections at the end of the 2015 season.
Northern Colorado’s special teams duo of Hakeem Deggs and Ellis Onic II were selected as the preseason special teams player, and return specialist, respectively. Both earned first-team All-Big Sky honors in 2015. The Bears also placed defensive tackle Chuntony Johnson on the list, a season after Johnson made 50 tackles.
Besides Kidder, Montana placed safety Yamen Sanders on the preseason list. North Dakota’s second mention came via safety Cole Reyes. Sacramento State’s Manoah Pearson was named as an inside linebacker preseason selection, after making 77 tackles in 2015.
2016 All-Big Sky Conference Preseason Team
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year– Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year– Caleb Kidder, Montana
Quarterback– Case Cookus, Northern Arizona
Running Back– John Santiago, North Dakota
Running Back– Chad Newell, Montana State
Fullback– Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly
Tight End– Steven Wroblewski, Southern Utah
Guard– Cameron Young, Weber State
Guard– JP Flynn, Montana State
Center– Blake Porter, Northern Arizona
Tackle– Jacob Julian, Northern Arizona
Tackle– Calvin Steyn, Weber State
Wide Receiver– Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington
Wide Receiver– Emmanuel Butler, NAU
Wide Receiver– Mike Sharp, Southern Utah
Placekicker– Jonathan Gonzales, Portland State
Return Specialist– Ellis Onic II, Northern Colorado
Defensive End– Caleb Kidder, Montana
Defensive End- Davond Dade, Portland State
Defensive Tackle– Chance Bearnson, Southern Utah
Defensive Tackle– Chuntony Johnson, Northern Colorado
Outside Linebacker– Mike Needham, Southern Utah
Outside Linebacker– Mac Bignell, Montana State
Inside Linebacker– Emmett Tela, Weber State
Inside Linebacker– Manoah Pearson, Sacramento State
Cornerback—Xavier Coleman, Portland State
Cornerback– Taron Johnson, Weber State
Safety– Cole Reyes, North Dakota
Safety– Yamen Sanders, Montana
Punter– Tate Lewis, Southern Utah
Special Teams– Hakeem Deggs, Northern Colorado