BY JEREMY HOECK
John Stiegelmeier said he learned something rather important last fall.
The South Dakota State head football coach and his assistant coaches sent out a text message to their players last May with the following message: ‘top 8 seed.’
The message was to serve as a motivation for the Jackrabbits, who came into the 2015 season although ranked but maybe not expected to finish as one of the top eight seeds for the FCS playoffs – which would have meant a first-round bye and a second-round home game.
SDSU football coach John Stiegelmeier speaks to a Yankton resident on Wednesday at Yankton QB Club. (Jeremy Hoeck/P&D)
“We sent that in every text and every email after that; top 8 seed, to raise the bar with a team that you should be saying that to,” Stiegelmeier told the Yankton Quarterback Club crowd on Wednesday afternoon.
Ultimately, SDSU came up just short of a top-8 seed but still got a postseason invitation – the program’s fourth in a row. The Jacks lost on the road at Montana in the first round.
While SDSU was frustrated that it got out-bid by Montana for that playoff opener, Stiegelmeier said he still learned a valuable lesson throughout the season.
“Never doubt, never question a bunch of young men that have banded together and worked their tails off,” he said, referring to the ‘top 8 seed’ message.
Making his annual visit to Yankton QB Club the Wednesday after National Signing Day, Stiegelmeier touched on a number of other topics during his speech.
One of the 29 recruits announced last week by the Jackrabbits was Yankton High School senior Bradey Sorenson, who is a nationally-ranked long snapper.
Sorenson will join five other Yankton graduates on the 2016 roster in Brookings, and that was understandably a popular topic Wednesday.
Stiegelmeier said Yankton fans should be especially proud of defensive lineman Kellen Soulek.
“Kellen came in with some pressure on him,” the coach said. “I’m more proud of this; he’s a better student in college than he was in high school.”
Soulek, who made 33 tackles (with 0.5 sacks and an interception) last season for the Jacks, could be an NFL prospect if he was on the offensive line, according to Stiegelmeier.
Another Yankton graduate, Brady Hale, was SDSU’s starting punter last season and his backup was another former Buck, Troy Hunhoff. Stiegelmeier said he looks forward to that battle in the spring.
The Jackrabbits have moved Yankton native Evan Greeneway from tight end to tackle, while Matt Fitzgerald is “working his tail off to get stronger,” Stiegelmeier said.
The coach also commended Yankton’s program, under head coach Arlin Likness, for the development of Division I-ready players.
“Credit to Arlin Likness, credit to your community, credit to these young men working their tails off,” Stiegelmeier said. “These young men are playing at a high level of football.”
Stiegelmeier also made very clear during his speech that SDSU does not use the term “walk-on” during the recruiting process, instead calling those players – like Sorenson – “non-scholarship athletes.”
“I don’t use the term the school down south in Nebraska uses; walk-on,” he said, “because I don’t think it’s fair to recruit 60 walk-ons and two play, and then boast that that’s an honor.”
One of the six South Dakota players the Jacks signed last week was Mitchell quarterback Kanin Nelson, who Stiegelmeier said is already enrolled in classes at SDSU and is working out with the team.
That is becoming a trend with Division I schools, Stiegelmeier said.
“Ohio State probably has 10 true freshmen at their school right now that are going to go through winter workouts,” he said. “Instead of having your 10th semester when your eligibility is done, they are literally coming early.”
Nelson will be a “seasoned guy” by the time fall camp rolls around in August, Stiegelmeier added.
“That’s a way of the world at our level of football,” he said.
Stiegelmeier was asked Wednesday about the South Dakota Board of Regents situation with multi-year contracts versus the current policy of one-year contracts.
The issue came up two weeks ago when the Regents decided to pursue a permanent salutation rather than grant the University of South Dakota a one-time exception to hire new football coach Bob Nielson to a multi-year deal.
The current BOR policy prohibits multi-year contracts for “non-faculty exempt employees such as coaches,” as the Associated Press put it.
Stiegelmeier, who said SDSU has been working on such a policy push for three years “behind the scenes,” said there isn’t one Division I football coach in the country that does not have a multi-year contract.
He said it presents a problem when he tries to hire assistant coaches – which he is currently doing – who may be coming from other schools with a multi-year contract.
“If you’ve grown up in South Dakota, you don’t just snap your fingers and things change,” said Stiegelmeier, a native of Selby.