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Falcons ready for new era under Walker

New UW-River Falls offensive coordinator Jake Wissing gives direction to the unit at a team practice last Thursday at the Ramer Field Sports Complex. Wissing and new head coach Matt Walker coached together at DePauw University in Indiana. Photo by Bob Burrows

The UW-River Falls football team's 2011 schedule isn't one that any first year coach would want. But new Falcon head coach Matt Walker said his team is up to the challenge.

The Falcons have four teams on their schedule that are ranked in the Top 25 of the pre-season poll. Two other teams on the schedule received votes in the poll.

"You could argue that we will play one of, if not the most, difficult schedules in the nation," said Walker.

The first test for the Falcons will be this Saturday, Sept. 10 when they host St. Thomas at 1 p.m., at Ramer Field. The Tommies were ranked No. 5 in the pre-season poll and opened their season with a 20-7 win over St. Norbert last Saturday.

"We are excited about the challenge of playing against a program as solid as St. Thomas," Walker said. "We respect what they've done as a program over the last few years and know that we have to play our best right of the gate to compete against an opponent as talented as UST."

Right after week one the Falcons travel to Trine University (Ohio) to face the nation's No. 21 ranked team on Sept. 17. On Sept. 1 Trine opened its season with a 24-13 win at Manchester.

The Falcons host the No. 1 ranked UW-Whitewater Warhawks on Oct. 8 at Ramer Field in the school's Homecoming and Hall of Fame game. UWW has won three of the last four NCAA National Championships. The Warhawks enter the 2011 campaign riding a NCAA-best (all divisions) 30-game winning streak, 17-game league victory string and 21-straight home triumphs.

Walker is the 20th coach in UWRF football history and takes over from John O'Grady who retired at the end of the 2010 season. Walker is just the third football coach at UWRF since 1970. Mike Farley coached from 1970-88 and O'Grady from 1989-2010.

Walker, 33, was the head coach at DePauw University from 2006-09 and led that team to a 22-8 record. His 2007 and 2008 teams finished second in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Walker has 49 returning letter winners on this year's roster. There are 14 seniors and 15 juniors. Seven starters return on offense and eight on the defensive side.

Walker said the linebacker corps will be a strength of this year's Falcon team.

"The linebacker group has as much deep talent as any other position on our team," he said.

Lincoln Bjorklund is lining up in the middle right now and he finished with 40 solo and 54 total tackles last year. Former Hudson Raider Nate Smits (21-21-42) played in all 10 games last year and had three tackles for loss and an interception.

The passing game will play an important role in 2011 and Walker has confidence in this group.

"The wide receiver position is one that has drastically improved since last year," said Walker.

John Wahlstrom (25 catches, 300 yards) has a full season of experience and Brady Hannigan (18-164) has shown great improvement in only his second year of college ball. Nate Brandt, who came to the Falcons as a quarterback has become one of the team's top wide outs.

"This core group, plus transfer Charles Dixon and a nice group of first year receivers gives us a lot of options outside," said Walker. Dixon, a River Falls High School graduate, comes to UWRF from South Dakota State.

The Falcons play UW-Eau Claire twice this year due to the WIAC's cost containment program. The two teams meet in a non-conference game on Sept. 24 in Eau Claire and the teams meet again on Nov. 12 in River Falls in a game that will count in the WIAC standings.

"This is a unique situation that's new to all of us. I don't know if any of us would choose to do but it's a decision we understand because of the difficulty for our teams finding games against other non-conference opponents," said Walker.