John Stiegelmeier has coached at South Dakota State long enough, he has seen the ushering in of several different eras.
As the veteran enters his 22nd year as SDSU’s head coach, the Jackrabbits are now trying to navigate their way into another new era: the chapter after two of the most decorated offensive stars in school history exhausted their eligibility.
Dallas Goedert came to South Dakota State as a walk-on tight end out of tiny Britton, South Dakota (population 1,251) back in 2013. By the time the hulking 6-foot-5, 260-pounder’s career ended, he was a two-time first-team FCS All-American after posting consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
The defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles selected Goedert with the 49th overall pick in the second round of last spring’s NFL Draft.
Only that level of production could overshadow the record-setting career of Jake Wieneke. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound wide receiver was a three-time All-American, including a first-team selection as a junior. He finished his career with SDSU and Missouri Valley Football Conference records for career receptions (288), receiving yards (5,157) and receiving touchdowns (59). He was one of the final players cut by the Minnesota Vikings; NFL teams solidified their 53-man active rosters over the weekend.
Replacing either star, let alone both, might seem like an impossible task. But South Dakota State’s internal expectations are as high as ever. The Jackrabbits host upstart Montana State on Saturday in their first full game of the season. SDSU’s opener at Iowa State was cancelled midway through the first quarter because of a thunder and lightning storm.
South Dakota State brings a No. 3 national ranking in the FCS, a recent resume that includes a quarterfinal appearance in the FCS playoffs in 2016 and a semifinal berth last season and a collection of experienced players led by All-American senior quarterback Taryn Christion and All-American junior linebacker Chistian Rozeboom who are eager to prove that life after Goedert and Wieneke indeed does move forward.
“The captains told me early on this off-season they were tired of hearing who we lost from the football team rather than who was on the football team,” Stiegelmeier said, referring captains Christion, Rozeboom, senior cornerback Jordan Brown and senior linebacker Dalton Cox. “There is a bit of a chip on their shoulder in terms of who we are and what is our identity. You put your signature on it on the football field so we will find out who we are on Saturday night.”
Under Stiegelmeier’s guidance, South Dakota State has gone from a solid Division II program in the former powerhouse North Central Conference to a Division I program beginning in the Great West Conference in 2004. In their fourth and final year in the Great West, Stiegelmeier helped the ‘Jacks to the league championship in 2007.
In 2008, SDSU joined the Missouri Valley and have been building into a nationally elite program incrementally. The Jackrabbits blew a 41-14 third quarter lead at No. 1 Montana in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, the program’s first as FCS members, in a 61-48 loss. SDSU got back to the playoffs in 2012 and have qualified for the post season every season since.
South Dakota State lost in the second round for three straight years before Stiegelmeier’s recruiting up-ticked because of massive facility improvements in Brookings, including a $65 million stadium that opened in 2016. With Christion as a freshman starter and Wieneke and Goedert starting to burst onto the scene, SDSU lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Griz in Missoula in 2015.
In 2016, South Dakota State toppled perennially peerless North Dakota State on the way to sharing the Missouri Valley title with the Bison for the first time. That team advanced to the Elite Eight before losing the rematch to NDSU.
Last season, SDSU won three playoff games before falling to eventual national runner-up James Madison, the defending national champs at the time, one step shy of the national title game. The goal for this season is to advance one step further once again.
“Our goal is to get to Frisco, Texas,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s not premature to say that because that’s the goal.”
That march likely starts Saturday against the Bobcats, particularly with the cancelation of SDSU’s FBS matchup with the Cyclones. Before September is over, the ‘Jacks will have another showdown the Bison in search of an unprecedented (at least this decade) third straight win over the program that has claimed six of the last seven FCS national titles.
But first comes Montana State. The Bobcats are coming off a season-opening 26-23 win over Western Illinois, a playoff qualifier out of the Missouri Valley two of the last three seasons. Last season, MSU took the fourth-ranked ‘Jacks down to the wire in an eventual 31-27 loss in Bozeman in the second game of the season for both teams.
“We will be challenged in all three phases,” Choate said. ‘This is a really good football team. They’ve beat North Dakota State each of the last two times they’ve played them. A four-year starter at quarterback who I think is a legitimate All-American candidate. You can go down the list – this is a very good football team.”
Choate acknowledged just how impressive it is to have a player drafted out of an FCS program in the top 50 to the NFL. Although Goedert seems like “a once in a generation kid”, Choate said, MSU’s third-year head coach doesn’t expect much difference in the way the Jackrabbits operate.
“Their DNA is not any different and I think that’s where they are at as a program,” Choate said. “Coach Stiegelmeier being there for 20-plus years, having a lot of continuity with their staff…they recruit to a model. All their tight ends are kind of the same height and weight. You can see who they are. They have an identity. They are going to do what they do in all three phases.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and contributed. All Rights Reserved.