When it comes to the North Dakota State offensive line, it doesn't really matter how many starters are coming back. Whether it's one, three or five, it's a safe assumption the unit is going to be among the best in the FCS.
For the 2019 "Rams," a nickname given to the Bison o-line, just two starters are back from last year's 15-0 team. But through three games, the unit looks as big, strong and as athletic as ever. Developing offensive linemen for 2-3 years before they hit the starting lineup is as natural of a routine for the Bison as Frisco bar owners hanging NDSU flags every January.
To get an idea of just how much firepower the Bison have in their offensive line group to reload each season, 2018 All-American and 2019 preseason All-American Zack Johnson has made the switch to right guard after starting for two years at right tackle. The Bison felt comfortable enough to slide him over one spot because of the abilities of junior Cordell Volson at tackle. Volson is the younger brother of Tanner, a 2018 All-American center for the Bison who got a shot with the Los Angeles Chargers this year.
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The Bison did the same thing last year on the left side of the line. Colin Conner had 29 consecutive starts at left tackle his sophomore and junior seasons but moved to left guard last season as a senior. Taking over at left tackle was sophomore Dillon Radunz, who went on to be a 2018 HERO Sports FCS Sophomore All-America Team and is a 2019 preseason All-American.
When AJ Blazek came in as the new offensive line coach on Matt Entz's staff, he shuffled guys around at different positions during spring ball to find the best starting five. Johnson, a senior, had already discussed the possibility of moving to right guard with former OL coach Conor Riley and began taking reps there during spring practice.
"It was new for sure," Johnson told HERO Sports. "It was kind of frustrating at first to try and get that footwork down and try to understand that everything is going to happen a lot faster and you will be exposed if you can't hold your own. I took it upon myself to get better at it."
After getting more comfortable, Blazek asked Johnson if he wanted to make the switch, and Johnson said, "Let's do it."
"Probably the area where I feel we have the most depth is the offensive line," Matt Entz said during preseason camp. "Dillon Radunz and Zack Johnson have both received a number of preseason honors. But you talk about two guys who have gone into the season with the right mentality. They're humble, which to me, anytime you have humility, it means you're willing to learn and listen. Both of those guys have moved around a little bit to create a situation where we can find the five best offensive linemen."
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Johnson provides a big body on the interior of the offensive line at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds. His reach, or arm length, makes it difficult for defensive tackles. And so far, the NDSU offensive line has performed at a high level despite only one starter playing the same position as last year in Radunz.
The Bison are No. 2 in the FCS with 316.3 rushing yards per game, behind the triple-option attack of Kennesaw State (388.7). And just as important is keeping redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance comfortable in his electric start to the season. NDSU has allowed only three sacks in three games.
In his first three starts, Lance is 39-49 passing for 542 yards, nine touchdowns, and zero interceptions. He's also rushed 27 times for 234 yards and four TDs. As any good quarterback will do, Lance has given a lot of credit to the o-line's protection.
"After playing with Easton (Stick) for a couple of years, it's a change for me personally because you're used to someone taking control and having that upbeat tempo," Johnson said. "Trey has that, but there's still stuff he's getting used to, and there are some things I'm getting used to, like his cadence. There are a lot of different things, but protecting him is our No. 1 goal. He's been ready to go, and he's our dude."
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