Outgoing members of FCS national champion North Dakota State have been quick to note they expect continued success in 2019 despite the Bison losing head coach Chris Klieman and the largest senior class in program history.
The reality, though, is NDSU will return only eight starters from its championship game win on Jan. 5 and new head coach Matt Entz, elevated from defensive coordinator with Klieman off to Kansas State, will have a lineup with numerous players taking on larger roles.
NDSU has won two straight and a record seven FCS national titles in the last eight seasons. Here’s an early peak into its new-look lineup next season:
There are three main candidates. Trey Lance, who will be a redshirt freshman, looks the part with terrific size (6-3, 215) and a potentially electric playing style. He probably is quicker than Easton Stick, who set the record for FCS quarterback wins by going 49-3 as a starter. Redshirt sophomore Holden Hotchkiss was listed No. 2 this past season and Zeb Noland is transferring in from Iowa State. Noland will have two seasons of eligibility remaining after starting five games in his Cyclones career, including a 360-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma.
Despite the loss of four-year mainstays Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn at running back, the trio of Ty Brooks, Seth Wilson and Adam Cofield haven’t just waited in the wings, they’ve combined for 2,821 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in a supporting role. Garrett Malstrom will take over at fullback following Brock Robbins' departure from the program.
The Bison will return two of their five starters, tackles Dillon Radunz and Zack Johnson, an All-American. The retooling will be on the interior of the line, where center Karson Schoening and guards Zach Kubas and Nash Jensen have good size and hope to move up from backup roles. It’s also possible 6-foot-6, 311-pound junior Cordell Volson, the younger brother of graduating All-America center Tanner Volson, will switch from tackle to guard and contend for a starter’s job.
Tight end is set with senior Ben Ellefson. He caught 14 passes this past season, but it seemed like more because eight went for touchdowns. Wide receiver is particularly young with Phoenix Sproles and Christian Watson expecting to take over as sophomore starters. Sproles is the cousin of NFL veteran Darren Sproles.
The leader of the unit is 6-foot-5 senior defensive end Derrek Tuszka, a part-time starter in 2018, including in the championship game. His 7.5 sacks tied for second on the team. Logan McCormick could start at the other end position after taking advantage of the four-game rule and maintaining his sophomore status for next season. Two seniors are expected to start inside in the 4-3 alignment, defensive tackle Cole Karcz, who also had 7.5 sacks, and nose tackle Jack Darnell.
There are few players in the FCS more regarded than outside linebacker Jabril Cox (6-3, 231), who would have to be considered as an early-entry possibility for the 2020 NFL Draft after his upcoming junior season. The second-team All-American led the team in tackles this past season and became the first NDSU player in 51 years to score on an interception return in consecutive games. A preseason injury kept junior Aaron Mercadel from the field in 2018, but he could return in a big way. Redshirt sophomore Jackson Hankey should do well at middle linebacker and senior Jaxon Brown seeks to take over on the other side. A wild card is Colgate’s T.J. Holl, the 2018 Patriot League defensive player of the year at Colgate, who is planning to go to a new school as a graduate transfer and lists NDSU as one of his suitors.
Free safety James Hendricks and cornerback Marquise Bridges will return as senior starters and anchor the secondary. Hendricks has nine interceptions over the last two seasons. Junior cornerback Josh Hayes started the 2017 national championship game against James Madison and is ready for a full-time role. Redshirt sophomore Michael Tutsie hopes to take over at strong safety and James Kaczor will be coming off a redshirt.
Junior punter Garret Wegner enjoyed a standout sophomore season. He also serves as the holder, backed up by safety James Hendricks, a former quarterback. Placekicker Cam Pedersen will be gone after four seasons, creating an open competition between returnee Jake Reinholz and incoming freshman Griffin Crosa, who will be enrolled for the spring semester. It helps the kickers to have long snapper Ross Kennelly returning.
This is a developing unit because the Bison can pull in skill position players from various units. Ty Brooks was the team’s leading kickoff returner as a junior.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Photo courtesy of NDSU Athletics)