Shane Zylstra has already become one of the most prolific receivers in Minnesota State football, and his teams have won 34 of 39 games, reaching the national final four in both of the last two seasons.
But as the senior prepares for his final season of college football, Zylstra has other goals, fueled by the end of his sophomore and junior seasons.
“You try not to dwell on it,” Zylstra said, “but you definitely think about it. We were so close to reaching our goal (of winning a national championship). We have to find a way to move forward one more game.”
The Mavericks begin fall camp on Monday, with a month’s worth of practices before the season-opener on Sept. 7 at Southwest Minnesota State. The Mavericks, who were chosen to win their third consecutive Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship by the league’s coaches earlier this week, have plenty of experience with 10 starters on offense and eight on defense returning.
“Our offense has a lot of mature and talented players,” coach Todd Hoffner said. “The defense lost some really good players, but our philosophy is to use a lot of players who can play at a high level. Our expectations are high on both sides of the ball.”
Zylstra is one of the cornerstones of the offense, which averaged 39.6 points. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver is coming off a spectacular season, setting a program record with 1,261 yards on 66 receptions. He’s caught 36 touchdown passes in his career, with 29 in the last two seasons. With 2,621 yards receiving and 146 receptions in his career, he has a chance to set team records for both.
“Shane has the ability to create space, and he wins those 50-50 balls in the air,” Hoffner said. “He needs to win those one-on-one matchups to take his game to the next level.”
Zylstra, inspired by his older brother Brandon, who is in training camp with the Minnesota Vikings, has professional aspirations. He worked out with his brother a few times during the summer, and he was at camp on Monday, trying to pick up some pointers. He is a big receiver by NFL standards, and his field speed is good enough. He wants to get better against press coverage, and he needs to stay healthy.
I’m trying to to change too much,” he said. “I’m preparing like I have other years. I would like to get a chance at the next level.”
It’s tough to predict Zylstra’s production for the upcoming season. In a run-first offense dominated by running back Nate Gunn, who has 3,255 yards and 34 touchdowns in the last two seasons, and an experience offensive line, the opportunities are fewer at Minnesota State than at other programs. But defenses will try to take away the Mavericks’ run game, creating some opportunities for the receivers and tight ends down the field.
“Ball distribution is something that’s harder than it seems,” Hoffner said. “It’s easy to hand the ball to a running back and determine how many carries everyone will get. It’s tougher to predict how many times you get it to a receiver. Our ability to be balanced is important, but it’s also challenging.”
For the last two seasons, Ryan Schlichte and J.D. Ekowa have split the reps at quarterback, and Hoffner’s uncertain if that will continue this season. Schlichte passed for 1,914 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season, and Ekowa had 1,130 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions, adding 380 yards and five touchdowns rushing.
“A lot depends on fall camp,” Hoffner said. “If one of them separates himself, we’ll give the reins to one person.”
The defense has four returning starters in the secondary, and a couple of holes to fill in the line and at linebacker. The top three tacklers — Alex Goettl, Zach Robertson and Cade Johnson — are back.
The biggest question mark on the roster is at kicker and punter, having lost All-American Casey Bednarski to graduation.
“We have four guys trying to replace one,” Hoffner said. “There are a lot of questions in the kicking game that need to be resolved.”
Over the next month, the Mavericks, who have been selected in the top five of one national preseason poll, will try to work out any issues. The home schedule includes Augustana, Winona State and Minnesota Duluth, all within the first five weeks, with the most challenging road game seemingly at Sioux Falls on Nov. 9.
“Our expectations are the same,” Zylstra said. “We have a lot of experience, but, like coach always says, nothing is guaranteed. The experienced guys have to lead, and hopefully, the young guys step up.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.