The University of Sioux Falls went 6-5 a year ago, and three of their losses were by seven points or less.

The Cougars have since moved on, and finished spring practice last Friday night at Bob Young Field. Head coach Jed Stugart talks about what he's noticed in practice the past few weeks.

"We're bringing back a young team. So, we have a lot of returners. I guess I haven't been surprised, but we're pleased defensively. We're moving to a new defense and the kids are picking up on that. They are very enthused, and adapting to that very well. We have increased our turnovers from a defensive standpoint. We're making some plays and creating some of those turnovers that we kind of emphasized because we didn't a very good job of that last year."

With a new season, there were changes made to the coaching staff. Dustan Hovorka replaces Ryan Grubb as offensive coordinator. Grubb left for Eastern Michigan to join Kalen DeBoer. Tremaine Jackson takes over as defensive coordinator, after Robert Tucker was let go. Hovorka has worked with Grubb the last three or four seasons, while Jackson was with the Cougars last year. Stugart says the transition has been smooth, and the players have been receptive of both coaches.

"Coach Hovorka has been here the whole time and been part of the architect of our no- huddle offense. We haven't changed a whole lot. Our terminology is the same, and he's been so involved with that, it's been very smooth. On the defensive side, we've started from scratch. We've built it from the ground floor up and the kids, no. 1, when you already have your kids know the coaches, that's half of it. We haven't had to have a coach that's has to come in and kids have to learn and get to know this guy. He's already been here."

Jackson will run a 4-3 defense, which fits best with the Northern Sun Conference, and is a more run-dominated league. Offensively, nothing is changing scheme-wise. USF will still run a no-huddle offense.

With basically the same offense, both of the Cougars young quarterbacks have a year of experience, and are hoping they can be even better in the fall of 2014.

"The battle has kind of been at quarterback this spring between Corbin Lawler and Matt Young. Luke ended our starter before he got injured, so there's going to be that competition obviously coming out of spring. All three of those guys are highly talented. I think the fact that Matt and Luke were our two guys that were starting and playing up until they got hurt, coming back with a year under their belt gives them a little bit more confidence and have more say on the field because they are returning from playing. That makes a difference from when they first got here as freshman to when they were still trying to know the guys. Now, there's a lot of credibility from a leadership standpoint around the offense," adds Stugart.

Luke Papillion is coming off shoulder surgery from an injury he attained last fall. In seven games played, he threw for 820 yards and six touchdowns. On the ground, he showed that his mobility was even more valuable, rushing for 816 yards and 14 touchdowns. Matt Young, meanwhile, threw for 417 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 150 yards and one touchdown. When both guys were injured, Carrington Hanna stepped in and threw for 1,085 yards and seven touchdowns. Hanna was a wide receiver before the move, and filled in nicely. However, his balance on offense at both positions will be missed because of graduation. Papillion, Young, and Corbin Lawler will all battle for the starting position going into next season.

The Cougars' backfield had a lot of success a year ago, and will help take the pressure off of Papillion, Young, or Lawler. Nephi Garcia ran for 1,068 yards and 10 touchdowns, Brady Rose rushed for 319 yards and four touchdowns, and Joseph Hlushak ran for 84 yards and a score.

"We've got a great stable of running backs for us having enough talent where we can get guys on the field. We had a great combination between Rose and Garcia last year. Now, with Garcia, Hlushak, Rose, Max Mickey, and guys that are up and coming, it enables to us to get Rose on the field in a different role to have Nephi and Brady on the field at the same time," shares Stugart.

The Cougars they lost a veteran offensive lineman in Derek Delaney to an ACL injury, but  return JT Surgant and have a good core of young offensive lineman that Stugart believes can make plays and block up front for their young quarterbacks and core of running backs.

"His leadership and being a veteran hurts you when you lose a guy like Derek (Delaney), but he will be able to get his year back. Depth is always an issue, but it opens up opportunities for young guys and new guys coming in. I like the class we recruited the year before and are able to step in and fill a loss like Delaney, to where we feel very good about our offensive line."

On the outside, USF's young quarterbacks will have a nice weapon in sophomore wide receiver Josh Angulo. He's young,  played last year, and is making plays for his signal callers this spring.

"We get him for three more years. He's a playmaker and makes all other guys know we have a scrappy little receiver core that makes plays and likes to block. They don't really care about not being household names right now because they are young, but man, they go out and block and make plays and catch ball," tells Stugart.

With a new scheme, and coordinator, the defense is developing, and Stugart is happy in the progress they are making as a unit.

"Our defensive line from a depth, and talent standpoint over the last couple of years, we've been trying to get deeper as far as guys that are able to get in games and get experience. We're finally trying to have a pretty solid two-deep on our defensive line. Our linebacker core is very young, but talented, and experienced led by Carter Ahlers, Clint Wilson, and Cameron Ostrom, who saw a lot more time last year. Secondary-wise, they are led by John Tidwell. It's good to see the emergence of our secondary getting better and more experienced. It makes me optimistic about how our defense will be next year."

USF opens the season on September 6 at home against Minot State, and play six total home games (Minot St., St. Cloud St, Concordia St. Paul, Southwest Minnesota State, Upper Iowa, and Wayne State). On the road, the Cougars play five games (Bemidji State, Minnesota State University-Moorhead, Augustana, Winona State, and Minnesota State-Mankato). Stugart says he hopes the Cougars experience last year from a young team  helps them achieve bigger goals of being competitive, and making the postseason.

"We were seven points from being 9-2 last year when you break down our season and realize how many games that we just didn't make a certain play at a certain time or couldn't close in the red zone. Our point of emphasis is not to let those opportunities slip by next year because I think I understand we were young last year, but were in every game. Now, take and learn from those things. That's what we've stressed this spring; those situations that we have to take advantage of and our expectations have risen a lot going into next year because we feel like we have a team that can compete and be a playoff contender if everybody performs like we think they can perform. It's made us cautiously optimistic about how good we could be."

After Friday's spring game, the Cougars will take a break before fall camp rolls around in August.

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Michael Brown for the University of Sioux Falls