ST. LOUIS (GoJacks.com) — South Dakota State has been picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll, which was announced Wednesday morning.
The Jackrabbits, who finished the 2019 season with an 8-5 overall record and 5-3 mark in the MVFC, tallied 91 points in the balloting among league coaches, sports information directors and a media panel. The Jackrabbits extended their streak of Football Championship Subdivision playoff appearances to eight seasons in 2019.
Defending conference and FCS national champion North Dakota State again led the preseason poll with 101 points, followed by Northern Iowa with 92 points. Rounding out the top five were Illinois State (80) and Southern Illinois (68).
In the bottom half of the poll, South Dakota was sixth with 52 points, followed by league newcomer North Dakota with 39 points. Youngstown State held the eighth spot with 36 points, with Missouri State and Western Illinois tying for ninth with 23 points. Indiana State has opted out of the spring season.
MVFC squads will play an eight-game league schedule, with games beginning the weekend of Feb. 19-21, including SDSU opening at Northern Iowa in a Friday-night matchup.
In addition, nine Jackrabbits were honored on the MVFC Preseason Team revealed Wednesday. Three of SDSU’s four first-team selections came on the defensive side of the ball, with defensive end Reece Winkelman, linebacker Logan Backhaus and cornerback Don Gardner honored.
Winkelman, a junior from Marshall, Minnesota, tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks in 2019. He totaled 36 tackles, including nine tackles for loss, and forced a fumble in his first season as a starter.
A senior from Spirit Lake, Iowa, Backhaus is the team’s top returning tackler after registering 79 tackles in 2019 to rank third on the squad. An honorable mention all-MVFC selection in 2019, he shared the team lead with four interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Gardner put together an all-conference season in 2019, earning second-team honors after registering 45 tackles, six tackles for loss and a team-high six pass breakups. The senior from Chicago also scored two defensive touchdowns – one on his lone interception of the 2019 season and the other on a fumble recovery.
The lone first-team offensive selection for the Jackrabbits was running back Pierre Strong, Jr. A junior from Little Rock, Arkansas, Strong has posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, rushing for 1,116 yards as a freshman in 2018 and 1,018 yards in 11 games as a sophomore. He also rushed for eight touchdowns in 2019 en route to All-America recognition from the Associated Press and HERO Sports.
Receiving honorable mention recognition on offense were sophomore quarterback J’Bore Gibbs and senior offensive lineman Wes Genant. Gibbs started the first six games in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury. He completed 59 percent of his passes (73-of-124) for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns, while adding four scores on the ground.
Genant, a Parkston native, has played all along the offensive line during his Jackrabbit career. He returns to a starting role at center during the 2020-21 season after redshirting in 2019.
Honorable mention selections on defense for the Jackrabbits included seniors Xavier Ward and Michael Griffin II.
A defensive tackle from Freeman, Ward has started 26 games in a row for the Jackrabbits. He contributed 21 total tackles in 2019, including seven tackles for loss with four sacks.
Griffin earned a spot on the MVFC All-Newcomer Team in 2019. A safety from Cottage Grove, Minnesota, he shared the team lead with four interceptions, while also tallying 40 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries.
Also earning preseason recognition was sophomore Jaxon Janke as a return specialist. The Madison native averaged 10.7 yards per punt return – with one touchdown – in 2019 and added 29 receptions for 353 yards and four touchdowns as a wide receiver in being named to the MVFC All-Newcomer Team.