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Saint Francis spring football: Five things to watch

Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer throws a pass during the Cougars' 38-17 win over Baker in the NAIA championship game in December. (News-Sentinel file photo by Reggie Hayes)
Saint Francis quarterback Nick Ferrer throws a pass during the Cougars' 38-17 win over Baker in the NAIA championship game in December. (News-Sentinel file photo by Reggie Hayes)

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For more on Saint Francis football, follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

Receivers and kickers needed but linebackers abound.

Thursday, March 30, 2017 12:01 am

The long, well-deserved celebration of the University of Saint Francis' NAIA football national championship still has a little life left.

For example, a ring ceremony takes place April 23.

But in most regards, the party's over and preparation for another run is underway. Offseason conditioning/weight training never ends, and spring practice for the 2017 season starts Friday afternoon at Bishop D'Arcy Stadium.

Here are five key components to keep an eye on for the Cougars this spring:

1. Quarterback Nick Ferrer spreading the ball around

Ferrer's favorite target Seth Coate has graduated, along with Montay McDowell and Akeim Kelsaw, so it's a new roster of receivers on the horizon. That means mixing things up, which Ferrer says he is excited to do. Sophomore-to-be Rocky James is the most likely to step into the high-production, high-profile role, but he'll be pushed by others, including Dan Ricksy, Duke Blackwell, Will Chrisman and Andreas Gomez-Espino, who is back from injury.

2. Bigger, stronger, faster linebackers

The defense returns more experience than the offense, and nowhere will it be more evident than in the presence of inside linebackers Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten and outside linebackers Spencer Cowherd and Marcus Stepp. This is a tough, talented group of players who know how to pursue, how to tackle and have the hands to pick off passes, too. Harnish, Dunten and Cowherd were the top three tacklers last season.

3. Secondary reinforcements

The Cougars will need a new starting corner (to replace Na'Shawn Lewis) and safety (to replace Jerrell Holman). Younger defensive backs, such as Blake Schumacher and Ryan Johnson, will get plenty of chances to compete this spring. Saint Francis returns starter Wilmer Cole at corner and Lee Stewart at safety.

4. Offensive line shuffle

Saint Francis loses three key components in center Brian Gegner, right tackle Keegan Bruner and right guard Zach Minardo. That's a lot of beef and a significant portion of the pass protection. Left tackle Alex Woods and left guard Connor Holcomb return. Holcomb is likely to move to center with Jaylen Gamble, a senior-to-be, moving into the right guard spot. So the Cougars would need to find solid linemen at the left guard and right tackle slots.

5. Kicking and punting makeover

Field-goal kicker Ryan Nix set four school records last season: longest field goal (44 yards), career points after touchdown (179), career points (245) and single-season points after touchdown (79). He'll be hard to replace in terms of consistency and production. Punter Josh Spitnale was as reliable as any in the game and he'll be gone, too. Joe Knepper punted while Spitnale was injured last season.

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For more on Saint Francis football, follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

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