Since North Dakota State began winning national championships in 1965, the Bison have fielded incredible talent at the running back position. From the Division II veer option days to the current dynasty of winning six of the last seven FCS national titles with a West Coast offensive look, NDSU reloads its backfield year after year.
The Bison have had nine 1,000-yard rushing performances in a season since 2011, the beginning of this run of championships. They've done it by committee, too, with two 1,000-yard backs in 2011, 2012 and 2013. It started with the duo of DJ McNorton/Sam Ojuri. Then to Ojuri/John Crockett. Then Crockett/King Frazier. Then Frazier/Chase Morlock/Bruce Anderson/Lance Dunn in 2016.
Last year's new stable of running backs appeared to be that next terrific group. Injuries took over the room, though, with four of the five players missing big chunks of the season. The Bison had outstanding All-Conference/All-American performances by the 2017 running backs, but they came at different times of the year.
All those guys are back in 2018. With multiple players who could earn postseason accolades if they were the feature back, this year's group of running backs could be the best in NDSU history.
"We have a lot of depth, but as we saw last year we needed that depth," Chris Klieman told HERO Sports during the July 30 MVFC conference call. "We had to pull a redshirt in Week 8 to get through the season with Seth Wilson … We have a number of guys and we just have to find different ways to get them on the field and get them the football. But we're excited about the depth we do have there."
Here's what the 2018 NDSU backfield looks like:
2017 Stats: 15 games, 234 rushes, 1,216 yards, 12 TDs, 5.2 YPC
Anderson didn't hit his stride until he was asked to carry the load when the Bison were down to two healthy running backs late in the season. The junior went off in the playoffs, scoring nine total touchdowns in four games, including five against Sam Houston State.
He was named a HERO Sports Second Team All-American and is on our preseason First Team. Anderson runs with power and speed at 5-foot-11 and 216 pounds. He has the eye of NFL scouts and is the top-ranked FCS prospect at running back for the 2019 draft and is ranked 21st overall.
2017 Stats: 8 games, 93 rushes, 684 yards, 12 TDs, 7.4 YPC
Anderson may be the All-American, but Dunn is probably the best running back on the roster. He was on pace to shatter records last year as the junior scored 13 total touchdowns, 12 rushing, in the five opening contests. Nine of those came in the three nonconference games.
A hip injury sidelined Dunn, who ran for 996 yards in 2016, after the seventh game and he didn't return to the field until the national championship. Dunn is a nightmare in the open field with incredible shiftiness at 5-foot-9 and breakaway speed. What the depth chart shows for the NDSU running backs doesn't really matter, but Dunn is probably the Bison's No. 1 guy, perhaps proven by the fact they went to Dunn late in the game against James Madison.
2017 Stats: 10 games, 76 rushes, 700 yards, 7 TDs, 9.2 YPC
Brooks battled leg injuries in the middle of the season but proved to be NDSU's most effective and explosive rusher when fully healthy. He averaged a ridiculous 9.2 yards per carry as a sophomore. Brooks is the Bison's change-of-pace guy with runs off tackle, although he has shown the toughness to run in between the tackles.
The Fargo native's speed is blistering. Just watch him pull away from No. 20 in the clip above. In that game against South Dakota, Brooks ran for 152 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries. That's 16.9 yards per attempt. He began the semifinal game with three rushes for 62 yards against SHSU but suffered a shoulder injury at the end of his third run that sidelined him in Frisco.
2017 Stats: 8 games, 72 rushes, 420 yards, 1 TD, 5.8 YPC
Due to the number of injuries described above, Wilson had to get his redshirt pulled in Game 8. He showed flashes of his vision and cutting ability in the open field against South Dakota in an 88-yard, 1-touchdown performance. Wilson showed something else in the playoffs: his ability to catch the football.
The true freshman caught impressive touchdown passes in the first two postseason games. Then in the semifinals, Wilson ran for 194 yards. His touches may be limited this season with the two seniors and Brooks in the backfield. But the playmaker is going to be utilized in the backfield and split out as a wide receiver.
Adam Cofield, Demaris Purifoy and yes, Easton Stick
Cofield, now a sophomore, and Purifoy, a junior, were heavily-hyped recruits when they stepped foot on campus. Neither has been able to show their full abilities yet because of injuries. Purifoy has only appeared in three games the last two seasons. He started last year with 18 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown against Mississippi Valley State before suffering a season-ending knee injury late in the game. Cofield showed flashes as a redshirt freshman, running for 89 yards against Robert Morris, but he also had his season ended from a knee injury in Game 6.
Both provide solid depth and give the Bison several options when they bust out the three running back diamond package.
Not to mention the rushing attack options include the quarterback. Stick is one of the faster straight-line runners on the team. NDSU will likely try and protect him and only run Stick when necessary. At the same time, he makes the Bison offense that much more tough to defend and has scored 24 career rushing touchdowns.
NDSU's offense ranked second in the FCS last season in scoring with 38.7 points per game. The rushing offense, averaging 272.2 yards a game, finished fourth. With all six running backs returning and at full health, along with an experienced and big offensive line, this could be the best NDSU backfield in school history.