When Ryan Saeger entered the 2014 football season, the spotlight wasn’t on him. He traveled to Eugene, Ore., with his teammates as the backup, but left the field of the eventual national runner-ups as the Coyote starting quarterback.
He probably wasn’t on his opponents scouting report, but things are different one year later.
Saeger, a junior, will begin the 2015 season as the University of South Dakota’s starting quarterback. He played four games in 2014 while starting quarterback Kevin Earl recovered from an injury.
“Expectations have changed a little bit. There’s a lot more responsibility coming into this year,” Saeger said. “In terms of leadership and performance, it will be much different, but the preparation is still the same. I’ve always prepared as if I’m starting every week no matter what.”
Earl, a senior, reclaimed his spot in the lineup as the season drug along. But injuries once again struck, thrusting Saeger back under center.
On the second day of spring football Earl injured his back and needed surgery, which knocked him out for this season.
While Saeger has started several games including both the Coyotes’ wins last year, he understands that being the starter from day one is different than filling in during the season.
He said he understands the pressure is on him to perform but believes he has enough experience to make it an easy transition.
“A few of my starts were against Southern Illinois, Montana and Northern Arizona last year,” Saeger said. “Those are three top programs in the FCS, so that gives me confidence going into this year knowing that I had game experience against tough competition.”
Saeger isn’t the only member of the Coyote football team who believes his experiences last year are huge for his and the team’s confidence.
Both head football coach Joe Glenn and offensive coordinator Wesley Beschorner said that Saeger’s starts last year are instrumental in his preparation for the upcoming season.
“He beat NAU, who was a nationally ranked team last year,” Glenn said. “He also got to play against Montana, Oregon and Western Illinois, who are all very good programs. That experience will help him tremendously going into this year.”
While Glenn believes that experience is huge for Saeger’s confidence, he also said the reps Saeger has been able to get as the starter also will help.
“When you’re the backup you probably get about 14 percent of the practice snaps compared to about 85 percent as the starter,” Glenn said. “You factor in getting reps as the starter in 13 of the 15 spring practices and all 29 fall practices and that’s a lot of time to improve and work.”
The physical skills are something every player works on in the off-season to improve as a player. Beschorner said Saeger has put in the work to get stronger and faster, and his favorite thing about Saeger is his mental make up.
“He’s very intelligent, knows the playbook from front to back and for him everything seems like common sense to him,” Beschorner said. “That’s huge when the complexities of being a quarterback seem simple to you. That speaks to his dedication to the game and how much passion he has for football.”
Saeger said one thing that has come naturally to him with the starting quarterback position is his leadership.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a leader even before I was the starting quarterback,” Saeger said. “I’m more of a vocal leader but understand that now that I’m the starting quarterback I also have to lead with my play.”
Saeger was elected one of South Dakota’s captains this year as well. Glenn said this wasn’t surprising to him, as Saeger seems to have the natural ability to lead men due to his character.
“He’s a high-character young man,” Glenn said. “The guys voted him as team captain as a junior. They believe in him and so do I. I’m excited to see him lead this team to a winning season. There’s an old expression I believe in and that’s in order to lead the cavalry you have to look good on a horse, and Ryan is that. He’s John Wayne.”
Saeger and the rest of the Coyote football team head to Manhattan, Kan., to begin their season against Big 12 Kansas State on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:10 p.m.
(Photo: University of South Dakota quarterback Ryan Saeger makes a run for the endzone during a home game in the DakotaDome during the 2014 season. Saeger will be the starting quarterback for the Coyotes this year. File Photo / The Volante)