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Falcon football kicks off season

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Year two of the Matt Walker era is just around the corner as the UW-River Falls football team prepares to kick off the 2012 season Saturday, Sept. 2. The Falcons finished the 2011 campaign on a strong note and look to build on that progress as they return some key components from last fall.

The Falcons defense started to click at the end of last year, allowing just over 20 points per game during the final three Saturdays along with collecting 11 of their 20 sacks.

"We made the move to the 3-4 midway last year and now have had an entire spring to settle in on this new system that the kids and coaches are excited about," commented Walker about the defense. "We have a lot of playmakers back on defense and feel like we have a lot of talent on that side of the ball. Our four senior starting linebackers anchor our unit."

Outside backer Nate Smits of Hudson led the Falcons with 75 tackles last year, along with finishing third in the WIAC with 11 stuffs behind the line. Joining Smits in the linebacking unit are fellow seniors Lincoln Bjorklund, Jake Mandoza, and David Scaro. The four seniors combined for 227 tackles, including 29.5 behind the line.

Mike Cano returns to the secondary where he finished second in the WIAC with four interceptions a year ago. Joining Cano is Alex Adams who has played in 19 career games during his first two years at River Falls. Trevor Semann and Aaron Niemann are the two starters returning on the defensive line as they combined for 40 stops last year.

The offense will have a few question marks as they graduate the entire backfield from a year ago. Taylor Edwards had three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, while Joel Yogerst started at fullback the last 40 games for the Falcons.

"We are excited to see a bit of a new-look Falcon offense," Walker said. "With two of the top running backs (Edwards and Yogerst) in the league last year, we were crazy not to keep those two in the backfield and try to pound it. While we will miss those guys, along with quarterback BJ Letourneau, we are excited about how multiple we will look this year to keep teams off balance. With the wide receiver position arguably the best on our football team, we will look to throw it around more and run it out of more formations."

The receiving core welcomes back seniors John Wahlstrom and Nate Brandt, who combined for 96 catches along with 905 yards in 2011. The 96 receptions were the most by any receiver tandem from the same team in the WIAC. Wahlstrom's 54 receptions ranks as the third best season in school history outside of Michael Zweifel's two seasons on campus in 2007 and 2008.

Jared Feltz returns at left tackle for the Falcons offensive line that allowed just 15 sacks in 2011. Ben Barrett also saw some starting action at right guard last year and Matt Jech started the final two games at right tackle.

Replacing Greg Klingelhutz will be no easy task as he re-wrote the WIAC and NCAA Division III record books throughout his career.

"We are looking to replace one of, if not the greatest, kick and punt returner in the history of Division III football." Walker said about the special teams units. "But, we think we have some new weapons to put back there that can give people some problems. Having our starting kicker (Chad Blair) and punter (Will Jensen) back is exciting as they are both a year better."

Newcomers who will help the Falcons in 2012 are cornerback Robbie Flom of Somerset on defense, and quarterback Ryan Kusilek of River Falls on offense. Running back Malcom Wilson out of Madison West High School should also add to the mix for the Falcons this upcoming season.

The Falcons have faced one of the toughest schedules in the nation the past two years and look to do so again in 2012 with four nationally ranked teams on the slate. The WIAC has three teams in the preseason rankings with UW-Whitewater, UW-Platteville and UW-Oshkosh. And for the third consecutive season, the Falcons will meet perennial powerhouse St. Thomas in non-conference action.

It all starts this Saturday when the Falcons kickoff the 2012 season by hosting Simpson College at 4 p.m., at Ramer Field.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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