As the 2023 FCS season inches closer, HERO Sports will look at five offseason questions for the 2022 quarterfinalists.
Next up is North Dakota State.
NDSU finished 12-3 last year, losing 45-21 to South Dakota State in the national championship game. Here are five questions the Bison face entering 2023.
RELATED: NDSU Football 2023 Schedule
Who are the stars?
Depth has been a major reason for NDSU’s nine FCS national titles. But having star power, game-changing players has also been key.
One could make the argument that some of the top-end players the Bison have had just don’t come around often, that they are once-in-a-generation talents. But you can counterargue that and say the reason NDSU has won so many championships is because they’ve had those elite star players. That’s what separated NDSU from contenders.
Would NDSU have beaten Illinois State in January 2015 if it didn’t have a guy like Carson Wentz? What about those close national title/semifinal games against James Madison? Without Nick DeLuca and Jabril Cox in 2017, or Trey Lance in 2019, or Hunter Luepke in 2021, are those still Bison victories? In a sport like football, it’s of course hard to say one single player won you a national title. But in those specific games and how they specifically played out, having those generational talents was the difference for NDSU.
So while it probably isn’t fair to compare current NDSU LBs to DeLuca and Cox, or compare current WRs to Christian Watson, or compare Cam Miller to Wentz/Easton Stick/Lance, the point is those guys’ presence on the field were difference-makers deep in the playoff bracket.
And the question is who are those game-changing players in 2023? Who are the stars?
Now, let’s not totally misconstrue this. NDSU still has a more talented roster than a majority of the FCS. And it has the things in place for many more years of FCS success. The Bison have the brand, tradition, facilities, cost of attendance, development, internal support, and external support. They’ll probably go 9-2 this regular season, if not 10-1, despite all of the questions in this article. And they’ll probably win at least two national titles in the next five years.
But, fair or not, we poke and prod and analyze NDSU’s play differently than other FCS teams.
NDSU and its players aren’t judged nationally based on its number of regular-season wins, getting a playoff seed, and making a deep playoff run. They are judged on if they are good enough to win a national title. We’re judging if this roster can knock off a loaded SDSU roster that brings back a majority of its championship pieces, who dominated NDSU in Frisco, and who have beaten the Bison four straight times.
Do the Bison have those dudes in 2023 that they’ve had in the past? Especially after losing a senior class that will send several guys to the NFL.
DT Eli Mostaert is a preseason All-American candidate after missing most of last season. RB TaMerik Williams has a good shot to be a 1,000-yard rusher. Jalen Sundell and Mason Miller look to step into leadership roles on a top-tier offensive line. But overall, NDSU seems to be lacking preseason star power to warrant confidence in the Bison winning a 2023 national championship.
How does a new-look secondary perform?
NDSU’s top three cornerbacks and top three safeties from last year are gone.
CB Destin Talbert graduated, while fellow corners Marques Sigle entered the transfer portal before the playoffs and Courtney Eubanks entered the portal mid-January. Sigle transferred to Kansas State, and Eubanks recently committed to Coastal Carolina.
Safeties Michael Tutsie and Dawson Weber graduated, while Dom Jones announced his intention to transfer at the same time as Eubanks. Jones has yet to announce his new destination as of this writing.
The Bison don’t have much playing experience in the secondary. They’ll be tested early in the season opener vs. Eastern Washington in Minneapolis. EWU isn’t what it was, but it’s still going to air it out with some athletic WRs.
Who steps up in the passing game?
Whether it’s Cam Miller at QB, a threat at tight end to emerge, and/or a play-making WR to step up, the passing game will need to improve for NDSU to accomplish its goal of a national title.
The Bison ranked 118th in FCS passing offense (135.1 YPG) last year, although most teams couldn’t stop the rushing attack as NDSU ranked No. 4 (265.7 YPG).
Miller was solid for good chunks of last year. But the playoffs didn’t leave a good impression for this offseason. He went 6/10 for 58 yards and an INT against Montana in the second round. Miller was very good against a Samford team that defended the run well in the quarterfinals, going 15/18 for 194 yards and a TD. In the semifinals vs. UIW, he finished 1/12 for five yards. And in Frisco vs. SDSU, Miller went 18/29 for 260 yards, two TDs, and two INT.
Miller has won a lot of games for NDSU, including a national title. He finished 2022 going 160/243 (65.8%) for 1,975 yards, 13 TDs, and five INT. His 147.7 passing efficiency ranked No. 20 in the FCS. But Miller will need to take his play up a level to win another championship in 2023 having to go through SDSU, who Miller has yet to beat.
Having a weapon emerge on the outside will be key in that as well, a receiving threat to soften a defense from selling out to stop the run.
Zach Mathis is back as a 6-foot-7 target, leading NDSU last year with 35 catches for 520 yards and three TDs. He was the only pass-catcher to record more than 300 receiving yards. Carson Hegerle (6-foot-2) and Mekhi Collins (6-foot-4) were highly-touted WR recruits. But as just redshirt freshmen in 2023, is one of them ready to become a go-to target? NDSU will need more from its passing game when, even if it doesn’t happen often, it runs into a defense able to stifle its rushing attack.
Does the front seven get stronger?
The 2022 NDSU d-line and linebackers were above-average to solid. But as stated above, on a national title scale, the front seven wasn’t where it needed to be. Does that improve in 2023 with the graduation of its top DL in Spencer Waege (All-American selection) and top LB James Kaczor (leading tackler)?
The Bison allowed 20.2 points per game last year compared to 11.1 in 2021, 12.3 in 2019, and 12.6 in 2018.
They allowed 156.9 rushing yards per game in 2022 compared to 87.6 in 2021, 136.1 in 2019, and 114.5 in 2018.
NDSU had 37 sacks last season compared to 49 in 2021, 44 in 2019, and 47 in 2018.
The defense had 81 tackles for loss in 2022 compared to 85 in 2021, 103 in 2019, and 105 in 2018.
Besides Waege and Kaczor, NDSU’s DL and LBs are all back, including 2022 preseason All-American DT Eli Mostaert after missing most of the year with an injury. Can those units return to an NDSU national title standard?
How is the RB depth?
RB depth hasn’t been an offseason question mark for NDSU in years. But it’s an area of concern in 2023.
TaMerik Williams is set for a standout season after rushing for 702 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and eight TDs last year. After him are question marks, though. NDSU lost last year’s leading rusher Kobe Johnson (961 yards, nine TDs) to the transfer portal. And All-American Hunter Luepke graduated. He led the Bison in rushing to start the season before injuries ended his year before the playoff run.
TK Marshall appears to be the No. 2 RB heading into this fall, rushing 58 times for 377 yards and five TDs in 2022. Barika Kpeenu is the next most-experienced RB, carrying the ball 15 times last season for 52 yards and a score.
Backup QB Cole Payton can provide some carries as well. And Cam Miller has good running ability, rushing for 561 yards and a team-high 15 TDs in 2022.
Williams is a big body at 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds. He played in 14/15 games last year, missing the semifinals. His ability to stay healthy is big for NDSU. His workload will increase, but unproven RBs will be leaned on too. They’ll run behind an offensive line that, despite losing its two best players Cody Mauch and Nash Jensen to the NFL, will remain a top unit in the FCS.