MENOMONIE — Whatever freshman-year jitters existed last year are gone now.
What remains is a dynamic group of sophomore Blue Devils that has UW-Stout’s offense looking primed for a big year.
All three of Stout’s top receivers from last year are back this fall, with a familiar face slinging them the ball from the quarterback position. And all four are only sophomores.
Quarterback Sean Borgerding is back after seizing the starting role as a rookie last year, and his favorite weapons in the passing game are joining him. Receivers Levy Hamer, Tyler Seymour and Parker Fossum — all who posed big-play threats as freshmen — are a year older and a year more experienced.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit, really,” said Borgerding, a Spring Valley graduate. “We’ve got all our receivers coming back, so we’re really excited about that. We’ve already seen glimpses in practice: The defense tries to take away one and leave somebody else one-on-one. We’ll take that matchup all day. We’ve got too many weapons where teams can’t only focus on one guy.”
And there will be a seasoned veteran among the group of explosive sophomores, too. Kevion McDonald, the team’s top receiver in 2017, returns to the field for his senior season after sitting out last year. He hauled in 587 yards and five touchdowns two years ago.
Hamer was the team’s top pass-catcher last year, making 73 receptions for 997 yards and seven scores. His 73 catches were the most by a Stout player in a single season since 1989, and he averaged just shy of 100 yards per game. He led the WIAC in both receiving yards per game and all-purpose yards per game to earn second team all-conference recognition.
Seymour racked up 445 receiving yards and found the end zone four times, while Fossum had 31 catches for 385 yards and two touchdowns. Seymour also earned second team All-WIAC honors. Both Hamer and Seymour caught a pass for 75 yards or more last year.
Given the depth among the group, Blue Devils coach Clayt Birmingham can’t help but be impressed.
“That’s one position where we’re pretty deep at, and we picked up some good incoming guys too,” he said. “I like where we’re sitting right now at that position.”
Borgerding had a 53.4 completion percentage last year, throwing for 2,086 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also ran for 143 yards and two scores.
The passing game isn’t the only area with experience for Stout this year either. The Blue Devils, who went 5-5 last year and tied for fourth in the WIAC, have eight starters back on both sides of the ball.
The defense surrendered an average of 27.1 points per game last year, but has three all-conference players back: defensive lineman Aaron Wisecup, linebacker Luke Wilz and cornerback Kierre Rhodes.
With only a few vacancies to fill in the first-string defense, the Blue Devils see their experience as a strength in the always-tough WIAC.
“It helps a ton,” Wisecup said. “We’ve had the same defensive scheme for the last few years, and guys coming back that know it. Now it’s just perfecting it — getting all the little details hashed out, rather than the big things like where to be or what to do.”
The all-conference honorees provide good pieces to build around at each level of the defense. Wilz was sixth in the conference with 81 tackles last year, while Wisecup led Stout with 9.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Rhodes had three pass breakups and two interceptions in the secondary, which also has safety Jed Schlegel back. Schlegel, a Spring Valley alumnus, had two interceptions before going down with injury last year.
“We just need to be more consistent,” Birmingham said of the defense. “Last year we had flashes of good stuff, but also some flashes of not-so-good stuff. So we just need to find consistency and stay healthy.”
One of the few question marks about the offense hovers around the rushing attack. Rayshawn Graham and KeyShawn Carpenter, the squad’s top two running backs last year, have both graduated. Sophomores Josh Nitek and Nick Arguedas figure to be candidates to grab a starting role after seeing limited action last fall. Nitek, a Blair-Taylor graduate, carried the ball 33 times for 151 yards, while Arguedas ran for 51 yards on 11 rushes.
No position is without its battles either, even for experienced returning starters. Birmingham said junior quarterback J.Dan Sturgeon, who steered Stout to a stunning 25-22 win over No. 4 St. Thomas two years ago, will have his shot to earn playing time.
“As we go into camp here, (Borgerding and Sturgeon) are kind of battling for No. 1 and No. 2,” Birmingham said.
Stout opens the season with a tough test when St. John’s comes to Menomonie this afternoon at 1 p.m. The Johnnies, who blanked the Blue Devils 27-0 last year, enter the matchup ranked third nationally in the d3football.com preseason rankings.
After nonconference games against Gustavus Adolphus and California Lutheran, the Blue Devils begin the WIAC slate against perennial title contender UW-Oshkosh.
“I love it,” Wisecup said. “I’d rather have every game be against a top-10 team in the nation. ... We love the competition, it just makes us want to get better.”