By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
Pittsburg State officially opens defense of its 2011 NCAA Division II National Championship on Thursday with a trip to Tahlequah, Okla., for a date with MIAA newcomer Northeastern State.
Some things are all but certain for this year’s squad — Nate Dreiling, for example, will be very, very good at linebacker if he stays healthy — but there are some key questions as the Gorillas gear up for another brutal MIAA schedule.
How will Abenoja fare as a starter?
Anthony Abenoja has the difficult task of replacing star quarterback Zac Dickey.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound strong-armed redshirt sophomore saw limited action last year, completing 15 of his 29 passes for 264 yards and three touchdowns.
Abenoja should be helped by the fact that his high school coach at Blue Valley was current PSU offensive coordinator Steve Rampy.
“Because of that he has a really good feel for what we’re doing,” Beck said. “And he got to learn from Zac all of last year. He got to watch and see all of the things the Zac brought to the table.”
He received a vote of confidence from his teammates when he was voted a team captain.
“He came in here in January after the season and has been phenomenal,” Beck said. “Obviously he’s going to have things to learn because he hasn’t been a starter, but he has taken hold of everything we’re doing and ran with it.”
Can the defensive line be dominant again?
The defensive line was key in 2011. The Gorillas finished the season with 41 sacks — fifth-most in the nation — for a total loss of 279 yards.
Three of the four starting defensive linemen were lost to graduation, but Gus Toca — who tallied a team-high 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss — is back at defensive end.
Joe Uzzel, a mountainous junior, will take over at the other defensive end spot after registering 3.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in a reserve role last season.
Will Grissom, a junior, moves from defensive end to tackle where Taye Irvin — a 6-foot-1, 333-pound freshman transfer from Coffeyville Community College — will join him.
“Taye is going to be a good player,” Beck said. “And Grissom had a really good spring after moving to the three technique.
“We feel like we have a really talented group.”
Avery Adair and Dallas Shalz, along with sophomore transfer Robert McField, could add more punch at defensive end.
Will the offensive live up to its experience?
The Gorillas bring back three players — senior center Aaron Kolich, junior tackle Cody Holland and sophomore guard Tyler Smith — who started at least seven games on the line a year ago.
Throw in Josiah Cody — a 6-4, 280 junior guard who started 10 games a sophomore in 2010 before using a medical redshirt last year — and Pitt State fields a well-versed offensive line.
That could bode well for a rushing attack that welcomes back seniors Briceton Wilson and Jason Spradling, sophomore Jeff Seybold and junior Solomon Watkins.
Can two key players bounce back from knee injuries?
Watkins and senior safety Chas Smith both suffered season-ending knee injuries on Oct. 8 at Fort Hays State.
Smith was impressive enough up to that point that he earned all-MIAA honors, racking up 30 tackles and four interceptions in six games.
Watkins showed encouraging signs before his injury, rushing for 70 yards and three touchdowns against Emporia State and scoring a touchdown in a season-opening win at Missouri Western.
“Chas had a little bit of a setback but I think he’ll be OK,” Beck said. “Solomon isn’t quite as far along, but we think both will be ready to go. Solomon will just keep getting better and stronger every week.”