HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs from June 17 to August 6. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 12-15. Today, we present … North Dakota State.
We'll leave no stone left unturned when it comes to giving the FCS diehards all they could ask for this offseason. Learn about every program in the country, with HERO Sports.
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North Dakota State (15-0 IN 2018)
MVFC (NDSU finished 1st in 2018)
COACH: Matt Entz – At School: 1st year Overall: 1st year
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: 2018 (National Champs)
2018 OFFENSE: 41.5 ppg (6th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 12.6 ppg (3rd in FCS)
KEY GAME: Sept. 21 vs. UC Davis: The Oct. 26 road trip to rival South Dakota State could easily go here, but we feel this one will have just as big of an impact on the playoff seedings. UC Davis is our Preseason No. 3 team, making this the top nonconference game in the FCS.
SUM IT UP: WR Christian Watson, WR Phoenix Sproles, RB Adam Cofield, RB Saybein Clark, TE Josh Babicz, TE Noah Gindorff, OL Cordell Volson, LB Jaxon Brown, SS Michael Tutsie, SS James Kaczor, LB Jackson Hankey, DT Cole Karcz, DE Spencer Waege … Those are just some names most people who follow the FCS either don't recognize at all or know very little about. But those are names that will allow the 2019 Bison to reload for another national championship run.
NDSU is a developmental program that gets high school recruits to buy into the system. While some freshmen and sophomores earn starting roles, a number of players don't get their opportunity until they are fourth-year juniors or fifth-year seniors. So when the Bison graduate a standout senior class, the next group of players step in just fine.
This season will be the biggest challenge yet of reloading the starting lineup. Just three starters are back on offense and four return on defense. It'll be the task of new head coach Matt Entz, who previously served as NDSU's defensive coordinator since 2014, to keep this thing rolling. He has five new assistant coaches on staff, a new defensive coordinator (David Braun) and a new offensive coordinator (Tyler Roehl, who previously coached the NDSU FB/TEs).
The No. 1 question heading into the season is who's going to be the starting quarterback. For the first time since this run of seven national titles began in 2011, there is an open competition. The front runners appear to be redshirt freshman Trey Lance and junior Iowa State transfer Zeb Noland. Lance is one of NDSU's best "gets" in recruiting and turned down a late Boise State offer. Noland played in five games last year and threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma.
The next big question right behind the QB battle is who the new starter is going to throw to. Tight end Ben Ellefson is a steady target who caught eight touchdown passes last year, but someone on the outside needs to emerge. Darrius Shepherd is gone after being the go-to target and the second most valuable player on the offense behind quarterback Easton Stick. There is unproven potential in the wide receiver room with guys like Christian Watson and Phoenix Sproles needing to step up.
NDSU's rushing attack should be its strength once again. While the offensive line is replacing three starters, the unit is always among the best in the FCS and has two HERO Sports Preseason All-Americans at the tackle spots: Zack Johnson and Dillon Radunz. The running back group suffered a big loss with Seth Wilson's season-ending ACL injury in April. But depth is still there. Ty Brooks is one of the best home-run threats in the country, Adam Cofield is set for a breakout year and Saybein Clark is a redshirt freshman tabbed as the next standout Bison running back.
Defensively, there are plenty of holes in the two-deep. But as we stated above, the Bison routinely plug in guys waiting in the wings of multi-year starters. Linebacker Jabril Cox is a preseason All-American, the reigning MVFC Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the best defensive player in the FCS. He is already an NFL Draft prospect and is just a junior. NDSU needs to fill the two other LB spots, just like it needs to fill three starting spots up front alongside preseason All-American defensive end Derrek Tuszka. Because the Bison rotate players on the defensive line almost every play, guys like Cole Karcz and Spencer Waege have gotten significant snaps and were just as productive as the starters in 2018.
The secondary should be solid, although depth is a concern. NDSU loses a couple of starting cornerbacks, but Marquise Bridges and Josh Hayes started in the national title game two years ago against James Madison and got starting experience last year as well. James Hendricks is going to be a top free safety in the MVFC as a senior and strong safety Michael Tutsie looks to replace four-year starter Robbie Grimsley just like Grimsley replaced four-year starter Colten Heagle.
NDSU gets its All-American punter Garret Wegner back but needs to find a new kicker.
OUR TAKE: The national narrative surrounding the 2019 Bison is this team isn't going anywhere when it comes to the national title picture. Interestingly enough, the narrative in Fargo seems to be that people nationally are doubting the Bison. But we have yet to see anyone say NDSU is going to have a massive dropoff this year. Yes, HERO Sports ranked the Bison No. 2 in our preseason poll behind James Madison. In our predictive method of voting, that means we expect this team to return to Frisco despite all the new faces in the starting lineup and on the coaching staff. That's pretty high praise. To us, there are a ton of question marks on this team while JMU returns essentially its entire starting lineup that's loaded with talent.
We also realize this program reloads like no other FCS team can do. That's why we think the Bison will be back in the title game. At the same time, comparing this team to the 2014 squad — which also replaced a huge senior class and a coaching staff — is dangerous. That team had a proven WR in Zach Vraa, a future pro RB in John Crockett and a once-in-a-lifetime talent taking over at quarterback in Carson Wentz. The defense also had a majority of its stars returning at all three levels. And that team came very close to losing in the playoffs three times.
Look, when you win seven of the last eight national titles, you're looking for any kind of motivation to avoid complacency. When we say the Bison may not be as dominant in 2019 as they were last year and the gap may shrink, that's not a dig. Folks … the 2018 squad is in the conversation for the best FCS/Division 1-AA team of all time. The 2014 team wasn't as good as the 2013 team but still won a title. If the Bison win the national championship this year, no one who covers this subdivision will be surprised. No one is doubting what this team can accomplish. No one thinks this team is rebuilding and that it won't be in the national title discussion all year long. The Bison are the one team in the FCS that you can just assume will replace 75 percent of its starting lineup and see very little dropoff. But once we see this new-look team hit the field and get better and better as the season progresses (like the 2015 team), that's when we'll know for sure if NDSU is still detached from the rest of the field as the national title favorite.
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COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Jr./LB Jabril Cox (HERO Sports Preseason 1st Team AA, 91 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4 sacks, 4 INT, 2 INT returned for TDs)
THE FOUNDATION: Sr./OL Zack Johnson (HERO Sports Preseason 1st Team AA); Jr./OL Dillon Radunz (HERO Sports Preseason 2nd Team AA); Sr./DE Derrek Tuszka (HERO Sports Preseason 3rd Team AA, 12 TFLs and 7.5 sacks); Jr./P Garret Wegner (All-MVFC 1st Team); Sr./TE Ben Ellefson (All-MVFC 2nd Team, 14 rec. for 194 yards and 8 TDs); Sr./FS James Hendricks (All-MVFC Second Team, 49 tackles and 5 INT); Sr./DT Cole Karcz (All-MVFC HM, 9.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks); So./DE Spencer Waege (MVFC All-Newcomer, 22 tackles and 4.5 TFLs); Sr./RB Ty Brooks (Top returning rusher, 737 yards and 5 TDs)
TOP NEWCOMER: Fr./LB Luke Weerts (HERO Sports' 21st ranked FCS recruit in 2019, had 6 FBS offers including K-State)
THE QUOTE: "Having watched Matt as the defensive coordinator for the past five years. I knew he possessed the qualities to be the head football coach at North Dakota State: leadership, integrity, toughness, and a sincere appreciation for the history and tradition of Bison football." — NDSU AD Matt Larsen said
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's NDSU Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
BEST FCS TRADITIONS: The List
PREVIEWS: The Rest Of The MVFC
Illinois St | Indiana St | Mo St
NDSU | UNI | USD
SDSU | SIU | WIU | YSU
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