The North Dakota State football team has played NFL-like schedules every year since 2011. From starting practices in late July to playing all the way into December and January, the Bison have averaged 15 games per season. That in turn has led to unorthodox spring practices with several players either sitting out because they are recovering from surgery done just a couple months prior or because their body is still healing from a long season.
Such is the case again for NDSU. Head coach Chris Klieman addressed the media Monday to kick off spring football and he brought a long list of inactives. Literally, he had a list in front of him. And after a couple questions about injuries, he decided to just name everyone on the list to answer future possible questions he expected to come.
Of the 18 on the list, notable players include left tackle Dillon Radunz, left tackle/guard Colin Conner, quarterback Easton Stick, defensive end Greg Menard, defensive tackles Cole Karcz and Aaron Steidl, linebacker Dan Marlette, cornerback Jalen Allison and running backs Ty Brooks and Lance Dunn. All are expected to start or play significant snaps come fall. And all are being held out of practice. Some are rehabbing surgeries while others, like in the case of Stick, are being sidelined for minor ailments like a sore elbow.
"That's a pretty good chunk of guys," Klieman said. "We'll have to be creative in how we practice. We've always done a good job of that and we're still going to have our double reps."
The two-deep in the fall is going to look much different than it is now. With these spring ball reps, the Bison will get a good look at younger players to build depth. Even the spring game is more of an exhibition with scripted plays or scenarios instead of an actual four-quarter game.
"What spring ball is becoming over the last X amount of years that I've been here is you try to go hard and get a lot of physical activity with the guys that haven't played much," Klieman said. "And you look at last year, we didn't tackle Lance or Bruce (Anderson) or have (Tre) Dempsey or Robbie (Grimsley) tackle anybody all spring. The nature of what you do in spring ball, I think a lot of (teams) have changed."
"It's a big list of injuries, but in the same respect, a number of those guys probably wouldn't have done a whole lot this spring anyway," Klieman continued.
Even with key players sidelined, there's still plenty of things to watch for as the Bison look to repeat as FCS national champs. Here are three key positions to keep an eye on: [divider]
Rarely do you hear Klieman rave about a player who hasn't proved it on the field yet. The last time he did it was with linebacker Jabril Cox. He's doing it again this year with 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman wide receiver Christian Watson, saying "he's going to be an absolute stud for us." Watson is one of the names on the injured list for the Bison, who hope to find another go-to option alongside Darrius Shepherd. With Watson out, it gives a guy like FBS transfer Desmond Cain a chance to make an impact in his second year with the program.
Stick can also find a reliable target at tight end. With Jeff Illies and Connor Wentz using up their eligibility, and with Nate Jenson out injured, two redshirt freshmen who stand 6-foot-6 in Josh Babicz and Noah Gindorff could take advantage of the opportunity and earn reps in the fall. [divider]
Free safety Tre Dempsey was one of the best leaders the Bison program has had. It'll be interesting to see how NDSU fills that hole and finds the best tandem to put on the field. The Bison certainly have options. Grimsley is an all-American strong safety who looks more like a free safety. James Hendricks saw a lot of reps at strong safety last season as well, but could fit the free safety mold.
Jaxon Brown is now a junior and has been a standout on special teams. He'll be given a chance. And NDSU has two-year starting cornerback Jaylaan Wimbush listed as a free safety and he could find a new role there with Allison returning and the emergence of corners Josh Hayes and Marquise Bridges in the playoffs. [divider]
NDSU's depth chart appears to be looking solid in the fall if one of the top storylines is who will win the backup quarterback job. But as proven by Stick in 2015, having a capable backup can be the difference in winning a national title. With Stick sitting out the first couple weeks of spring practice, the Bison are down to two redshirt freshmen taking snaps: Holden Hotchkiss and Noah Sanders.
The future at quarterback for NDSU football could very well be incoming freshman Trey Lance, who turned down multiple FBS offers to come to Fargo. Word was Boise State made a late run at him right before the early signing period, according to the Bison Report from 247Sports. But in 2018, either Hotchkiss or Sanders are going to hold a crucial role in NDSU making another run.