Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
NORTHERN COLORADO BEARS
2018 non-conference record: 0-3
RECORD LAST SEASON: 3-7 OVERALL, 2-6 IN BIG SKY PLAY
Big question: Can Collins guide prized recruiting class to playoffs at long last?
Earnest Collins Jr. signed a heralded recruiting class packed with players the Northern Colorado head coach planned to insert into the lineup early on in their careers.
After redshirting in 2014, standouts like defensive end Keifer Morris, quarterback Jacob Knipp, running back Trae Riek, wide receiver Alex Wesley, tight ends Michael McCauley and Theron Verna and offensive lineman Zach Wilkinson all broke into the starting lineup. Four years later, the collection of offensive playmakers are all in their final seasons.
“Five years ago, when they walked into the door, you could see those guys were leaders the day they stepped on campus,” Collins said during an interview at the Big Sky Kickoff media conference in July. “Jakob Knipp was one of those guys. Then you get an early starter out of Trae Riek as a redshirt freshman, Alex Wesley came into his own, Kiefer Morris breaks into the lineup as a redshirt freshman. Now these guys are seniors. This was the class for us that we had a feeling that would be the get over the top class for us. Man, I can’t wait to get into practice, get these guys out on the field just to see where we are.”
In order to push for the playoffs, Northern Colorado set up an all-FCS schedule for the second time since Collins took over at his alma mater in 2011. The only other season UNC played no FBS schools came in 2015, a campaign that ended with a 6-5 record, the second winning mark (the Bears went 6-5 the following season as well).
Thus far, Northern Colorado has shown defensive strides in its opener but could not close an upset. UNC pitched a second-half shutout and scored 14 fourth-quarter points but fell just short in a 17-14 home loss to No. 17 McNeese State. The following week, Austin Simmons threw for 462 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 80 yards and another score in No. 23 South Dakota’s 43-28 win in Vermillion.
With Knipp on the shelf once again — after a solid freshman season in 2015 (1,969 yards, 13 TDs in eight starts), Knipp suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second game of the season as a sophomore and suffered the same injury four games into last season — Keaton Mott started last week’s non-conference finale against Sacramento State. He threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns but the Bears gave up 14 points in final 6:23 in a 28-25 loss to the Hornets
Offensive Player to Watch: Alex Wesley, senior wide receiver
Wesley has navigated balancing track and field with football as well as any of the limited number of dual-sport athletes in the Big Sky. The multiple time league 400-meter champion has also developed into arguably the Big Sky’s best big play wide receiver. As a freshman and sophomore, Wesley totaled 656 yards and seven touchdowns. He won the Big Sky outdoor championship in the 400 meters each of those years.
Last fall, Wesley broke out. He caught 55 passes for 1,010 yards and six touchdowns to earn second-team All-Big Sky honors. Wesley had four games with more than 100 yards receiving including 10 catches for 193 yards against Southern Utah. By surpassing the 1,000 yards mark, he became just the ninth player in program history to reach that mark and the 10th overall. Vincent Jackson did it twice.
Last spring, Wesley continued his domination of the track in one of the sport’s most grueling races, winning his third straight outdoor championship and advancing to the NCAA West Regional championship meet for the third straight spring. He finished in the top 12 there, advancing to the NCAA Outdoor Championships. He finished eighth, earning second-team All-American honors.
“Alex, he’s pretty collected about it, doesn’t talk about track and field too much around the football guys but it’s awesome to watch him win,” Morris said. “And it carries over onto the football field. The kid has burners so he will outrun a lot of corners.”
Defensive Player to Watch: Keifer Morris, senior defensive end
The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder from Parker, Colorado contributed right away in 2015, leading the Bears with 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss among his 50 tackles as a redshirt freshman. As a sophomore, he had 42 tackles, and three tackles for loss.
As a junior, Morris entered the ranks of the Big Sky’s best defensive linemen. He earned third-team All-Big Sky honors at defensive end thanks to 63 tackles that included a pair of 13-tackle games against Montana and Idaho State. He led the team in tackles for loss with 13.5 and sacks with nine, the second-highest total in the league.
Senior defensive end Kiefer Morris: “The schedule says it itself; when we came in, Coach Collins and the AD sat down and had a talk about how our class was special and we are all seniors now so they set up the schedule we have,” Morris said. “We aren’t playing an FBS school this year. It’s all equal competition. This is the year for us to make the playoffs and become that caliber of team that we’ve wanted to since we’ve been climbing through these years.”
Conference opener: Northern Colorado at No. 7 Weber State, 6 p.m. MST