When Earnest Collins Jr. first returned to his alma mater, he found a program competing in a Division I conference that was far from a Division I football team.
The Bears did not have facilities comparable to the rest of the Big Sky Conference. Collins, a standout defensive back at UNC in the early 1990s, did not have the resources to hire a full 10-man coaching staff. From the weight room to the locker rooms to Nottingham Field, Collins knew rebuilding of the Bears into relevancy would be a real challenge.
“We jumped to D-I in name alone,” said Colllins, UNC’s secondary coach during a Division II semifinal run in 2002 before jumping to the Great West Conference in 2004 and the Big Sky in 2006. “We were manning a Division I football program with a Division II staff and Division II resources.”
Over the last five seasons, the budget for football has steadily increased and the resources have become more fruitful, two things Collins gives a great deal of credit to the UNC administration for. Collins went from six assistants to the full allotment of 10. The recruiting budget has increased and the young talent acquired over the last few recruiting seasons looks like it might pay dividends in 2016.
“When you come into a place, you want to get it turned around as fast as you can and you think you might be able to do it in a year or two,” said Collins, who went 0-11 in 2011 and did not win a league game in 2013 either. “You usually don’t get five years to turn a program around so we are blessed the administration gave us the time.”
The Bears appeared to be close to a turnaround in Collins’ second season at the helm. UNC won four out of five down the stretch, a streak that could’ve been five consecutive wins if not for a 12-10 loss to Northern Arizona at home. The Bears finished with four league victories after totaling just six Big Sky wins in their first six seasons in the league combined.
But the following year, Northern Colorado returned to the cellar, ending the season on an 11-game losing streak that included a loss to Division II Colorado State-Pueblo. That season, UNC lost by one touchdown to Southern Utah and three-time reigning league champion Montana State while also falling by a field goal to North Dakota. But it mattered not in the final wins and losses.
“We’ve always had talent, we’ve always had guys who can go but we would lose games even when we would be in it,” said senior defensive back Thomas Singleton, an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection after playing every defensive snap for UNC a year ago. “We just didn’t have that competitive killer instinct. When it was time to make a play, make a stop, we would never come up with those.”
Last season, Northern Colorado had a breakthrough, both because of its 6-5 overall record, the first winning record of the Division I era but also because of its performance against some of the league’s top teams. UNC bounced back from an 0-2 league start to win two straight games, giving them an 4-2 mark with No. 7 Eastern Washington coming to town. All-world receiver Cooper Kupp eventually willed EWU on a game-winning drive that resulted in Jordan Dascalo’s game-winning 44-yard field goal as time expired as UNC came out on the wrong end of a 43-41 heartbreaker.
“That Eastern Washington game was so close,” Singleton said at the Big Sky Kickoff media conference earlier this summer. “We had them pinned down toward our goal line and I dropped a pick. I probably would’ve walked into the end-zone. If I make that play, we win that game. As a team, we just have to take advantage of our opportunities and eliminate missed opportunities.”
Two weeks later, Northern Colorado posted perhaps the biggest win in its program’s Division I history and one of the landmark wins of the conference season. Freshman running back Trae
capped an 88-yard drive with a short touchdown run with 23 seconds to play to lift UNC to a 35-32 win over No. 9 Portland State. PSU went on to earn the only seed (6th) given to a Big Sky team in the FCS playoffs.
“We went toe to toe with some of the top teams in our conference last year,” said third-year sophomore quarterback Jacob Knipp, who threw a touchdown and rushed for another score in the PSU win. “This year, we feel like we can beat anybody on our schedule. We are going to build on the consistency standpoint and take it one game at a time. It should be a fun year.”
The Bears posted a 40-36 win over Abilene Christian in their season finale to move to 6-5, the first winning record by the school as a Division I member and a building block for the team to carry some momentum in to the off-season.
“We had our first winning season in 10 years and that’s something we need to build off of,” said Riek, one of the most explosive running backs in the Big Sky when healthy. “We have to keep believing in each other, trust the process and keep doing what we are doing. We are on the right track to do big things.
“When we first got here, Coach Collins was big on changing what’s around us. We had a down attitude around here. All the freshmen that came in with my class like Jake (Knipp) and all of us, we decided that it wasn’t going to be that way anymore. We wanted to change the culture at UNC.”
Entering 2016, the Bears return as much young talent as any team in the Big Sky. After winning the starting spot two weeks into the season, Knipp compeleted 59.2 percent of his passes for 1,969 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added five rushing scores. Riek struggled with injuries down the stretch but when healthy proved to be a home run threat, averaging nearly six yards per carry on 137 touches and totaling 796 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games to earn honorable mention All-Big Sky honors. Michael McCauley also earned All-Big Sky recognition as a freshman by catching 14 passes for 229 yards, including three touchdowns in the EWU game.
“They just got their feet wet as redshirt freshmen, Knipp, Trae Riek, and if they stay healthy, we have a great chance to make the playoffs,” Singleton said. “We have weapons on the outside too. Fifth-year receiver Stephen Miller is kind of like Cooper Kupp. He’s always in the right position in the hole of the defense. Alex Wesley is one of the fastest humans I’ve ever been on the field with, Hakeem Deggs is one of the fastest humans I’ve ever seen on the field, Ellis Onic one of the fastest players I’ve seen on the field and these guys are all on our team. We have explosion on offense.”
Wesley has twice won the Big Sky Conference title in the 400 meters as a member of the UNC track team. His 34-yard touchdown to open the action against Portland State proved to be crucial last season.
Onic and Deggs combined to catch just 30 passes for 247 yards and no offensive touchdowns. But the juniors-to-be were the most dangerous special teams weapons in the league. Onic averaged 24.5 yards per punt return, taking two to the house for touchdowns. Deggs averaged 354 yards per kick return, ripping off a 100-yard TD return against Sacramento State that ultimately was the difference in a 27-20 win and returning a kickoff 93 yards in the narrow loss to EWU. Onic and Deggs were both first-team All-Big Sky selections on special teams.
The defense will build around the All-Big Sky senior defensive line duo of Mikhail Dubose and Chuntony Johnson, who combine for 5.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last season. Keifer Morris also had a breakout freshman year, notching 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in his first season competing in the league. On the back end, All-Big Sky safety Taylor Risner decided to forego his final year to pursue graduate school but Singleton returns for his fourth year as a starter and Brandon Lenoir returns as a junior after missing last season with a shoulder injury. At linebacker, former Washington State transfer Kyle Newsom returns for his senior season after an All-Big Sky 2015.
Despite the collection of returners, Northern Colorado garnered no off-season respect. The Bears were picked to finish 10th in the Big Sky by both the media and coaches’ preseason polls.
“We’ve been the underdog every since being in the conference so that’s an every-year thing for us,” Collins said. “For us, it’s about maturing and understanding that we belong and that we can beat anybody in every given day.”
“Good teams aren’t proud of 6-5 seasons so we have to graduate from that and turn 6-5 seasons into 10-1, 9-2,” added Singleton. “I’m pretty sure you can make it to the playoffs with an 8-3. That’s what we are looking for.”
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