Winning five straight national championships has helped put the North Dakota State program on the college football national radar. It has also caught the attention of NFL scouts.
“Who are these guys and what are they doing so well?” was probably a question asked a few years ago.
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While the Bison don’t have the athletes like a Florida State, what scouts have found are players playing in a system that makes them pro ready quicker than some of the FBS programs.
Everyone knows Carson Wentz’s story. But was there a more versatile rookie last season than former NDSU offensive lineman Joe Haeg? The fifth-round draft pick started 14 games for Indianapolis at guard and tackle.
The Bison have had at least one player drafted the last three years. Right on the doorstep this year is another offensive lineman: Zack Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 331-pound road grader.
Whether he is selected on Day 3 of the NFL Draft or picked up on a free agent deal, Johnson will find himself in a camp.
"I've talked to multiple teams," Johnson told HERO Sports. "It's just a waiting game now to see if I end up getting drafted late, where I'm projected, or if I'm going to be a free agent. It doesn't really matter to me. You get a shot either way."
He wouldn’t be the only former Bison making his mark despite going undrafted. Cornerback Marcus Williams has found a home with the New York Jets. And along with Wentz last year, Philadelphia added cornerback CJ Smith and fullback Andrew Bonnet to its roster or practice squad.
Prior to Wentz and Haeg, defensive end/outside linebacker Kyle Emanuel was selected by San Diego in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and offensive lineman Billy Turner was picked in the third round in 2014 by Miami.
[credit] Zack Johnson (left) hopes to follow in the footsteps of Joe Haeg (right) in showing an NFL team that NDSU offensive lineman are pro ready. (Photo by Sam Herder)[/credit]
NDSU's system gives players an easier introduction to the NFL playbook. It runs a pro-style offense under center and asks the lineman to move people off the ball instead of just getting in their way like a spread offense.
"At the Shrine Game when we were learning plays, it wasn't much of a difference from stuff that I ran here," Johnson said. "The terminology is different. Some teams have different footwork. But it really wasn't much different than what I did at NDSU. And I think that's a big thing that they can look at and say they come from a pro system, so it shouldn't be as hard of a transition as someone who comes from a spread system or someone who never goes in a three-point stance."
The journey to the NFL so far for Johnson has been just that: a journey.
He was a rare true freshman offensive lineman for the Bison in 2012. He started every game at left guard and had an all-conference season on the 2013 team. Johnson had to redshirt in 2014 after offseason knee surgery. He returned to have all-American seasons in 2015 and 2016.
"I think it was after 2013," Johnson said on when he felt he had a chance at the NFL. "We went 15-0 and that was my first year fully starting. I felt confident with what I was doing and that's when the game started to slow down. It became a lot easier to think and see things. The knee injury happened and I went through that stretch of injuries. But I think it was that point when I realized what I could potentially do."
Johnson was invited to the Shrine Game in January, but suffered another setback when he tore his MCL in the last padded practice. He was unable to play in the all-star game. Johnson said he felt confident he showed his abilities during practices prior to the game, though. He impressed in the 1-on-1 drills and played some right guard for the first time in his career.
His next stop was to train and rehab in the Washington/Vancouver area. Johnson said his goal was to get back and participate in all the drills at NDSU's Pro Day on March 29. He knew his times wouldn't jump out to the scouts, but he said he wanted to show them his knee was healed.
His film alone has certainly showed scouts a lot. He dominated at the point of attack for an offense that wants to run the football. Teammates and fellow linemen Jack Plankers and Landon Lechler are also receiving NFL interest.
While "NDSU" and "NFL" will always be linked with "Carson Wentz," the Bison continue to churn out NFL talent.
Jon Gruden summed it up in an April 7 press conference when he visited NDSU for a coaches clinic: "A lot of these players, these Bison, they come out of here polished. They're versatile guys. Guys like Joe Haeg. He can play guard or tackle. He's smart. They do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. This style of football is not for everybody … A lot of these guys graduate, they play five years, and they're mature men when they come out of here."