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Upward and onward for Vikings, after a year of success and tragedy
Whistles chirping, pads crunching and the sound of construction echo throughout the Portland State campus this week. Its a new era for the athletic department but especially for Vikings football.
With Stott Center undergoing renovation, so too is coach Bruce Barnums team, which shocked the country and went 9-3 last season, including a 24-17 upset of Washington State on the road.
Barnum, with a penchant for metaphors, describes last season as his teams first trip to Disneyland, with 2016 representing their second trip to the theme park.
This year, were gonna ride the Matterhorn instead of the Dumbo ride, Barnum says, chuckling. Its a step up, its dark and you dont know what to expect.
The Vikings had their most successful season in recent memory in 2015, so sustaining that success will be unfamiliar territory for Barnum and company. Hell have time to build the program, though, after inking a five-year contract extension last season.
Senior quarterback Alex Kuresa leads the offense into battle in his second year as the starter after transferring from Snow College in Utah. Barnum jokes that this has to be Kuresas 16th year of playing college football.
Hes got the wow factor, Barnum says of his mobile, versatile signal-caller. Alex is your prototypical quarterback he knows when to take a chance, how to manage the game, and fits our system to a T.
Playing for Portland State is a bit of a redemption tour for Kuresa, who never got a chance to play quarterback at the collegiate level at BYU. After finally playing under center for Snow, hes been a leader for the Vikings ever since he came to Portland.
Senior guard Cam Keizur out of West Linn leads a group of offensive linemen tasked with protecting Kuresa.
Barnum says he over-recruited the position.
Im never going run out of those guys, Barnum says. At the FCS level, you dont want to be one injury away from disaster, so weve got some insurance there.
All-purpose running back Nate Tago will be a key contributor out of the backfield. Barnum says Tago fits his teams mindset of self-discipline and sacrifice for the good of the team.
Defensive standouts include cornerback Xavier Coleman out of Jesuit, who Barnum calls the face of the program, as well as defensive end Davond Dade and a rotating cast of linebackers.
We dont have any superstars, five-star Rivals guys or anything like that, Barnum says. If youre on our football team, you know that were all in this together. These guys get that.
Nothing could have prepared the Vikings for two tragedies that brought them together in a way that no practice, game or film session could ever do. Linebacker AJ Schlatter died in January from complications after tonsil surgery, and just three months later offensive lineman Kyle Smith died of a reported drug overdose.
The plan, according to Barnum, is to put Schlatter and Smiths numbers (31 and 67) on the front of Portland States helmets along with the letter C for defensive end Michael Domans son, Carter who died after being run over by a car in May.
On Monday, Barnum spoke on the phone with University of Arizona assistant coach Jim Machalczik after the death of Wildcats offensive lineman Zach Hemmila. He says Machalczik asked for his advice on how to deal with that type of loss, one Barnum knows all too well.
I can deal with and process something like this, Barnum says, with tears welling up. But what will always be hard is talking to the families.
Theyre still living it, and now all we can do is try and help them.