PARK CITY, Utah -- The Idaho State Bengals put together their first winning season in more than a decade last year. Expectations are even loftier for 2015 with the number of high-caliber players returning this fall.
The Bengals, for so long the doormat of the Big Sky Conference before an 8-4 effort a year ago, placed a league-best six players on the preseason all-Big Sky team that was released at Monday's Big Sky Football Kickoff.
"It's an honor to see that many names; expectations are we're trying to be that strong team, that dominant team in the Big Sky," said senior ISU running back Xavier Finney, one of the Bengals' three selections on offense.
Montana drew four picks after its 9-5 campaign last season, third-best along with Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona behind Montana State's five.
Among EWU's four representatives was junior wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the Big Sky's pick for offensive MVP. Southern Utah senior defensive end James Cowser was tabbed as defensive MVP.
Both were unanimous selections.
The Grizzlies earned two defensive selections in linebackers Kendrick Van Ackeren and Jeremiah Kose, one on offense in receiver Jamaal Jones and a special teamer with kick returner Ellis Henderson.
"We have some ballers, especially in the linebacking corps," Griz senior DE Tyrone Holmes said of his defense. "I'm excited to see what 'Miah and Kenny are gonna do this year."
Van Ackeren, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior outside linebacker, registered a team-high 122 tackles last season. He had two fumble recoveries and an interception while making second-team all-league in 2014.
He's also been named a STATS FCS preseason All-American.
Kose, a 6-2, 220-pound senior, was Montana's second-leading tackler with 117 a year ago. He picked off two passes at middle linebacker and was third-team all-conference.
Jones (6-1, 191) surpassed 1,000 yards in 2014 as a junior, doing so on 67 catches, including eight touchdowns. All three categories led the Grizzlies and he was named a second-team all-league player.
Henderson (6-0, 185) notably missed most of 2014 with health problems, appearing in only four games after a 1,000-yard campaign in 2013. The WR has regained the lost year of eligibility and will still be a redshirt junior this fall.
Henderson's inclusion Monday despite his prolonged absence from the game shows the respect the voters -- league athletic directors and select media members -- have for the Grizzly's skills, Holmes said.
"He's shown he can produce on the field, so I don't blame them," Holmes said. "I would have voted for him if I could have."
Henderson was deadly in the return game in 2013 as a sophomore. He averaged 24 yards per return on kicks -- including a 98-yard TD scamper with 96 seconds to play that proved to be the difference in UM's 31-27 win at South Dakota. He also averaged 12.2 ypr on punts with a long of 54 yards.
Eastern Washington's Kupp is the first receiver ever listed as Big Sky preseason offensive MVP. The conference only started dishing out preseason accolades in 2008, so it's a short history, but Kupp's place in it is noteworthy none the less.
"It's pretty cool, but those things are based off of what you do the year before," Kupp said. "I do my best to try and flush everything heading into this year that's happened before.
"Coming in like a redshirt, work like you haven't earned anything yet."
Kupp has made all-conference first teams in each of his two years in the league and, like Montana State junior quarterback Dakota Prukop, was listed on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year watch list.
Kupp caught 104 balls in 2014 for 1,431 yards and 16 TDs a year after winning the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top freshman in the FCS. He set a Big Sky single-season record with 21 TD grabs that first year while leading the nation with 1,691 yards receiving.
Cowser set a Big Sky record as a junior last season with 28 1/2 tackles for loss to help him earn first-team all-conference honors. He added 11 1/2 sacks and 85 total tackles to his stat sheet with three forced fumbles for the Thunderbirds.
The selection puts Cowser in a class with some of the greats in recent Big Sky memory, he said, which might be the most exciting part.
"It's cool growing up throughout my years here and seeing the different guys who have had that preseason honor and see what they've actually done with it," said Cowser, a STATS FCS defensive player to watch. "Guys like those two Montana ends, Zack (Wagenmann) last year, have big senior years.
"I think that contributed because the expectations were so high. I'm hoping I can do the same."