As they have for months, Dixie State football had September 5 circled on its calendar.
Not only was it the Trailblazers’ first football game as a Division I program, but it was also against the team up north, Southern Utah University.
Coach Paul Peterson knows this team well, after all he was the quarterbacks and wide receivers coach at SUU for four seasons, and knows a potential rivalry could be in the making.
“We hate those guys, man,” Peterson said jokingly. “I have a lot of respect for Demario Warren, a coach of mine, and a lot of those guys on that staff I know.”
That game is gone, for now at least — DSU is scheduled to play at SUU in 2020 — but there are other games that could lead into potential rivalries.
Tarleton State is another school entering the WAC as a newly minted Division I program starting this year, and DSU Athletic Director Jason Boothe has told The Spectrum in May DSU has a solid standing relationship with Tarleton State.
Not to mention, being an independent DSU has the opportunity to play whichever team it wants if it logistically fits on both school’s schedules.
Still, it’s hard to argue against the significance of what a yearly DSU-SUU game could mean for southern Utah specifically. Between St. George and Cedar City, DSU wants to prove its worth.
“They recognize this is a big game for them, and a big game for us,” Peterson said. “They’ve got some conference championships under their belt so they’re the big dog, and we’re the up and comer trying to knock them off their pedestal.”
With that game, and other potential rivalries, being put on hold, the Trailblazers have now shifted to a different mindset.
Peterson said the team tried its best to get back to St. George when it was allowed to back on July 13, but some players weren’t in good shape and the team wasn’t ready. That’s the result of having workouts canceled in March due to the pandemic.
This led to a meeting on Dixie Rock, where the team helped a woman who had her hair caught in her repelling equipment back up to the rock. That meeting was an important one for DSU, as Peterson asked his team for one week’s worth of patience.
Peterson wanted to see if he could scrounge a last-minute schedule together, and asked his team to practice like they were playing. When that didn’t happen, the team postponed to the spring, the team’s objectives changed.
“We transitioned right into, okay, let’s develop,” Peterson said. “We need to do these things when we do get the chance to play, and our guys really attacked the weight room.”
Development was already on the radar, as the jump from Division II to Division I was going to be difficult. But, the Trailblazers already have a solid base to build on.
Seven DSU players made it on Phil Steele’s 2020 Preseason FCS Independent Team: quarterback Kody Wilstead, tight end Chase Hess, wide receiver Jalen Powell, placekicker James Baird, quarterback and punter Keaton Mott, defensive lineman Dylan Hendrickson and offensive lineman Nathen Aceves.
“They earned it,” Peterson said. “Are going to make the next step to be able to progress to earn the postseason accolades?”
With Peterson having an offensive background, having both his potential starting quarterbacks in Wilstead and Mott make Steele’s list is a big accomplishment.
Not to mention Powell and Hess also making the list means the absence of Dejuan Dantzler and Kasey Allison won’t loom as large.
Had a season played in fall 2020, the combo of Wilstead and Mott is a luxury DSU could’ve reveled in. Wilstead is more gunslinging passer while Mott is a little more athletic, meaning Peterson could play either one depending on the match up.
Mott and Wilstead combined to throw for 2,914 yards, 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season, which are numbers that can only be expected to improve with a full season of Peterson’s offense under their belts.
Behind those players who have the preseason accolades, Peterson is confident in his other starters and reserves.
“In our recruiting class, we added some length and some depth in a lot of different positions,” he said. “We’ve got another small senior class, we’re not losing too many guys.”
It would’ve been tough to surprise a loaded 2020 schedule that included three of the Big Sky Conference’s top four teams and a 10-win Illinois State team. But, DSU was set to welcome a 6-5 Drake team to Trailblazer Stadium, which could’ve been the best shot at claiming a non-Division II win in 2020 aside from Tarleton State in the last week of the season.
The prospect of playing in the spring, or next fall even, was difficult because of the question of eligibility.
But, when the NCAA announced in late August it would provide an extra year of eligibility to all fall sport athletes impacted by the pandemic, that answered all questions DSU had
Peterson is expecting his team to be available and ready once they know more about a potential fall or spring season, which should be around October.
“We’re going to be stronger, we’re going to be conditioned,” Peterson said. “Our guys are willing to put that work in to play again, whether that’s next fall, we got to wait a whole other year, or whether that’s the spring.”
Chris Kwiecinski covers Region 9, Dixie State and Southern Utah athletics for The Spectrum. Follow him on Twitter @OchoK_, and contact him at [email protected], or (435) 414-3261.