All-Conference

SKYLINE SPORTS preseason All-Big Sky football selections

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Questions abound with Big Sky Kickoff upcoming

On July 10, the Big Sky Conference gathered votes for the preseason All-Big Sky Conference football team. The league returns close to 100 players who have earned postseason all-conference honors in their careers, including more than 80 who earned All-Big Sky nods last season.

Colter and Brooks Nuanez of Skyline Sports compiled their annual list of preseason All-Big Sky selections based on each players’ past performances, the importance to their respective team and their intangible edge over other players in the league who play their position.

Preseason Player of the Year Offense — Keelan Doss, UC Davis

UC Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss/by UC Davis Athletics

The “no-brainer” picks for this year’s team included UC Davis All-American receiver Keelan Doss, the third-place finisher in last season’s Walter Payton Award who is back for his senior year after having a chance to enter last season’s NFL Draft. The other sure-fire preseason picks include Cal Poly fullback Joe Protheroe, the league’s leading rusher in 2016 before sitting out most of last season with an injury; Weber State senior offensive tackle Iosua Opeta and Southern Utah junior center Zach Larsen, the only two returning All-American offensive linemen in the league; Northern Arizona stud wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, a two-time first-team all-league selection who missed the conference season last year with a shoulder injury and Montana outside linebacker Josh Buss and Weber State inside linebacker LeGrand Toia, the two returning All-American ‘backers in the Big Sky.

We also made the mostly indisputable selections of Weber State sophomore kicker Trey Tuttle, a first-team All-Big Sky and All-American selection as a true freshman last season; Northern Arizona senior safety Wes Sutton, a returning first-team all-conference performer; Sac State senior defensive end George Obinna, a returning firs-team all-conference selection who finished second in the league in sacks last season; and Southern Utah tackling machine Chinedu Ahononu, the league’s leading tackler with 152 stops in 2014 before going on an LDS mission then returning to earn second-team All-Big Sky honors last fall.

While the list contained some shoe-in selections worth little debate, the rest of the list was filled with tough decisions and argument that raged on well into the evening the night before the deadline.

Who deserves to be the Big Sky’s preseason All-Big Sky quarterback? Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud and Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus have both earned All-American honors in their decorated careers with Gubrud sharing BSC Offensive Player of the Year two years ago but Cookus earning first-team all-conference honors last fall. You can also add Jake Maier onto the list, a former junior college transfer who ranked third in the FCS in passing yards per game last season, his first at UC Davis.

Montana senior running back Jeremy Calhoun/ by Jason Bacaj

With North Dakota no longer in the league and All-Big Sky running backs John Santiago and Brady Oliveria no longer eligible, who earns the nod at the two running back spots? Will Montana State do-everything phenom Troy Andersen play running back again? Or will he be a primary contributor on the Bobcat defense a season after going both ways and earning Big Sky Freshman of the Year? How will talented Montana senior Jeremy Calhoun acclimate to new head coach Bobby Hauck and new offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach?

Will the league’s returning leading rusher James Madison of Idaho State have his numbers cut into by talented tailback Ty Flanagan? Southern Utah’s Jay Green led the league with 14 rushing touchdowns last season but teammate James Felilia rushed for nearly 100 yards per game despite missing nearly 25 percent of the season. What production worth more?

The offensive line featured fewer question marks with the return of Opeta, Larsen, Southern Utah junior guard P.J. Nu’usa (3rd-team all-conference in 2017) and Idaho’s Noah Johnson, a second-team All-Sun Belt pick last season in the Vandals’ last season in the FBS. The second tackle spot might go to SUU’s Marquez Tucker, a second-team All-Big Sky pick as a junior last season, but Montana State junior Mitch Brott’s transition from right tackle to left tackle might be one of the most crucial position switches in the league. If Brott can replicate his dominant physicality from the power tackle spot to the blind side, the league’s top rushing team has a chance to crush with its ground game once again.

In a talented wide receiver crop, Doss and Butler are surefire selections but who gets the third spot? Idaho State junior Mitch Gueller is a returning first-team all-league pick but can he replicate his explosive numbers from his first year back playing football after a minor league baseball career?

Former baseball star Mitch Gueller thrives in return to football at ISU

Can Andre Lindsey, a junior college transfer who averaged more than 30 years per catch before placing at the Big Sky Outdoor Track & Field championships in the 110 hurdles in the spring, repeat the same success as a senior at Sac State? Fellow track star Alex Wesley, a multiple Big Sky champion in the 400 meters, came into his own on the outside for Northern Colorado last fall, surpassing 1,000 yards receiving for the first time. Is he ready to etch his name among the elite receivers in the league? And how will Montana’s deep, talented corp acclimate to an offense that does not prioritize the four-receiver sets that were customary under former head coach Bob Stitt. From UM, Keenan Curran seems primed for a big senior year regardless of the scheme.

Preseason Player of the Year Defense — LeGrand Toia, Weber State

Montana junior linebacker Josh Buss was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award last season/ by Brooks Nuanez

Defensively, Buss is the most exciting and productive returner in the league, a tackling machine who is equally dangerous running sideline to sideline as he is rushing the passer off the edge. But the senior outside linebacker will have to learn new Montana defensive coordinator Kent Baer’s multiple scheme on the fly after missing all of spring ball because of off-season shoulder surgery.

With Buss’s recovery still a work in progress, the preseason Defensive Player of the Year nod goes to Toia, a mean, hard-nosed senior who spearheaded Weber State’s run to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs last season. He and Landon Stice make up the best linebacker combo in the league. But how will those two fair without first-team All-Big Sky defensive tackle McKay Murphy, now of the Los Angeles Rams, on front of them and NFL Draft pick cornerback Taron Johnson, the league’s Defensive MVP now with the Buffalo Bills, locking down the outside?

With Murphy, Johnson and talented corner Xequille Harry graduated, Weber will need Toia, Stice and junior Jonah Williams to rise to the occasion. The physically imposing 6-foot-5, 265-pound Williams earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a sophomore and is one of just a few returning all-league defensive players on the edge.

Sac State defensive end George Obinna (99)/by Sac State Athletics

Obinna’s 8.5 sacks last season led a Sac State sack attack that quietly led the league for a team that won seven games, including six in Big Sky competition. His return along with that of junior defensive tackle Dariyn Choates (honorable mention All-BSC in 2017), senior inside linebacker Manoah Pearson (3rd-team All-BSC in ’17), first-team All-Big Sky safety Mister Harriel and third-team all-league cornerback Dre Terrell (led the league with five interceptions) gives the Hornets the most talented unit in the league on paper. But the Hornets have a much more difficult league schedule this year with road games at Montana, Southern Utah and Weber State.

NAU’s secondary has transformed from talented but young to talented and veteran as Sutton, safety Kam’Ron Johnson and cornerback Maurice Davison return for their senior years and their third seasons starting together. Those three plus returning second-team all-league corner Khalil Dorsey, the runner-up in the 110-meter hurdles in outdoor track at the Big Sky meet, gives the Lumberjacks the league’s most loaded secondary on paper. But how will the group fair without a proven pass rusher?

On the inside of the defensive line, Choates has the best numbers after notching 9.5 tackles for loss last season. But Eastern Washington’s Jay-Tee Tiuli was a first-team all-league pick two years ago and is back healthy for his senior. Montana State’s Zach Wright might not post flashy numbers but he’s one of the most important cogs to a Bobcat defense that finished second in the league in total defense and scoring defense. His leadership and tone-setting toughness will be crucial for a unit that returns almost completely in tact in Jeff Choate’s third season at the helm.

And perhaps the most pressing questions in the league come out of the Treasure State. How will Montana State’s transfers like former Washington defensive end Bryce Sterk, former Colorado linebacker Dante Sparaco and safety Jahque Alleyne fit into the Bobcats’ already solid defense? Who will emerge at quarterback for MSU after Chris Murray was ruled ineligible on Wednesday afternoon?

Montana State starting QB Murray will miss 2018 season for academic reasons

On the other side of the Great Divide, Montana is looking to snap a two-year playoff drought, the first dry spell its kind for the Griz since the early 1990s. After three years under the direction of Stitt, the Griz are back under the guidance of Hauck, a mentor who led UM to seven straight Big Sky titles and three FCS national championship game appearances in his first stint between 2003 and 2009. Hauck is sure to bring revitalized toughness back to Montana. How will players like Buss, junior defensive end Jesse Sims, senior defensive tackle Reggie Tilleman and junior safety Josh Sandry improve under new direction? And what will Rosenbach’s offense look like operating with personnel recruited to run Stitt’s spread offense?

Here’s how we voted for our Skyline Sports preseason All-Big Sky team.

SKYLINE SPORTS PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY TEAM

Preseason Player of the Year Offense — Keelan Doss, UC Davis

Weber State senior LeGrand Toia (58)/ Weber State athletics

Preseason Player of the Year Defense — LeGrand Toia, Weber State

Quarterback — Gage Gubrud, Eastern Washington

Running back — James Madison, Idaho State

Running back — Jay Green, Southern Utah

Fullback — Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly

Tight end — Wesley Preece, UC Davis

Guard — P.J Nu’usu, Southern Utah

Guard — Noah Johnson, Idaho

Center — Zach Larsen, Southern Utah

Tackle — Mitch Brott, Montana State

Tackle — Iosua Opeta, Weber State

Wide receiver — Keelan Doss, UC Davis

Wide receiver — Emmanuel Butler, Northern Arizona

Montana senior wide receiver Keenan Curran/ by Brooks Nuanez

Wide receiver — Keenan Curran, Montana

Placekicker — Trey Tuttle, Weber State

Return specialist — Rashid Shaheed, Weber State

DEFENSE

End — George Obinna, Sacramento State

End — Jonah Williams, Weber State

Tackle — Zach Wright, Montana State 

Tackle — Jay-Tee Tiuli, Eastern Washington

Outside linebacker — Josh Buss, Montana

Outside linebacker — Landon Stice, Weber State

Middle linebacker — LeGrand Toia, Weber State 

Middle linebacker — Chinedu Ahononu, Southern Utah

Cornerback — Khalil Dorsey, Northern Arizona 

Cornerback — Marshaun Cameron, Northern Colorado

Safety — Wes Sutton, Northern Arizona 

Safety — Mister Harriel, Sacramento State

Punter — Jered Padmos, Montana State

Special Teams — Brady May, Weber State

 Photos by Brooks Nuanez, Jason Bacaj and attributed. All Rights Reserved. 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 12 year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to founded Skyline Sports.

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