North Dakota State's seniors will play their final regular season game Saturday in Carbondale, Illinois with a chance at history as the Bison will attempt to tie the all-time winning streak in FCS at 33 games.
This class is unique to me for many of these players came to Fargo to play one position and will leave playing another. It's a testament to some about perseverance and gutting things out when things may not go exactly to plan.
Dom Davis - Davis' career has been a swing of emotions. Davis played 11 games in his redshirt freshman season, inserted into the lineup after the Bison were dealing with some injuries in the secondary, as he was on the field a lot during the national semifinal with James Madison. He played in nine more games in 2017 before suffering a torn ACL during fall camp in 2018. Davis was set to return to the field this year when he tore his other ACL. He declined surgery and has returned to the field, trying to help any way he can before his career ends.
Jaxon Brown - A dynamo on special teams, Brown will be remembered for his ability to fly down the field and make a tremendous open field tackle. Brown excelled at that very play in 2017 and 2018, to the point where had 11 special teams tackles last season. Brown is one of the more energetic guys on the team and it shows in his play. Brown is one of the players that switched positions, he came to Fargo as a safety and made the transition to linebacker in the spring of 2018. He has found his way into the rotation at that spot and provided needed depth in that position this fall.
Tre Fort - I spoke with Fort last week before Senior Day and you could sense this was a young man pleased with how things turned on. Fort has been a career backup, who has not started a game and he was ok with that. He was a great high school player at Shanley and slugged it out on the scout team for three years before becoming a regular backup in the secondary. Fort said last week his job is to make sure Marquise Bridges and Josh Hayes are at their best each Saturday. These are the definition of "program guys", who each team needs.
Jack Darnell - Darnell's road to the field may not have happened as quickly as he would have hoped for, but he's become a vital part of the defense in 2019. Darnell was rushed into the lineup in 2016 as a redshirt freshman after Nate Tanguay tore his ACL and played a lot of football the end of that season. He served in a backup role the last two years before getting his turn this fall. He was thrilled to be starting the season opener at Target Field being a Twin Cities kid from Champlin Park. Darnell is part of defensive tackles group that is young but is leaning on his experience at that position all year long.
Jimmy Kepouros - It's been a long journey for the young man from Michigan. Kepouros' career began at Western Michigan before a coaching change had him looking for a new college. He spent a year out of football before transferring to NDSU in the summer of 2017. Kepouros had been in Fargo for what seemed like a day and then tore his ACL. He sat out that season and was eager to contribute last season, but didn't catch a pass behind Darrius Shepherd and Dallas Freeman. Kepouros though, stuck it out and has thrived this season. He has 19 receptions heading into the final game and has become one of Trey Lance's most trusted targets, going over the middle to make a catch and rarely drop the ball.
Garrett Malstrom - The Frazee native and former walk-on has the team's best nickname in "Meatstick". Malstrom has the love of his teammates, his return to the lineup this past weekend had his teammates fired up to see him back after missing a few games because of his injury. Malstrom saw his first start in 2017 as he and Brock Robbins both saw regular time at fullback. Malstrom took over the starting fullback duties in 2019 and has become a load to deal with, frequently blowing up defenders each play. He made his way into the box score this season, grabbing his first two receptions against UND, drawing a large cheer from the Fargodome faithful.
Cole Karcz - A defensive end that moved inside during his time in Fargo, Karcz has become one of the consistent forces up front. He made his impact last season, finishing second on the team with 7.5 sacks. Karcz has been a fixture in the middle in 2019 until this past week when he missed the game with an injury. His sack total has gone down this season, but Karcz showed off his hands with a big interception in the win over Cal Davis.
Marquise Bridges - Another player that came to Fargo at one position and leaving at another. Bridges was a high profile recruit out of DeLaSalle High School in the Twin Cities as a wide receiver. During his redshirt freshman year, Chris Klieman decided to move Bridges to cornerback. The move paid off in 2017 as Bridges became a great player, picking up two interceptions in the semifinal win over Sam Houston and a game changing pick in the title game against James Madison. He became a starter in 2018 and was named a team captain this year, he's become the shut down corner of the Bison football team. A great story for a player who was expected to be a difference maker on offense.
Zack Johnson - There was a time when he was referred to as "Little Zack Johnson" while the other Zack Johnson played offensive line, but that title went away quickly. Johnson has developed into one of the best offensive linemen in the country, starting 30 straight games at right tackle, before moving to right guard and starting every game at that position this season. A first team All-American last season and in contention to be one again this year, he's the only senior on the offensive line but has provided stability and great play over the last three seasons.
Dimitri Williams - It seems like a lifetime ago that Williams was inserted into the lineup against Montana in the 2015 FCS Kickoff, but there he was. He had a critical fumble in his first collegiate game, but has become a big time play maker for the Bison since then. Williams made several big plays at wide receiver, but became a special teams ace in 2017. When the NCAA's new redshirt rule was put in place, Williams elected to use that last season, playing in four games as he transitioned to running back. He has became another threat in the Bison backfield, using his arms and legs to help guide a young group.
Derrek Tuszka - The younger Tuszka brother made his name known in the 2018 title game with James Madison. A consistent presence in Bryan Schor's face, he garnered some Most Outstanding Player votes in that game, finishing with two sacks. His play only went up last season, racking up 7.5 sacks all the while becoming a threat on the outside for tackles to deal with. Tuszka was named a team captain before this season and he's continued to improve. Tuszka has 9.5 sacks in 2019 and is a contender for the league's defensive player of the year award. He's been invited to the Shrine Game in January and will be remembered as one of the top defensive ends that has played at NDSU in the D-1 era.
Ben Ellefson - The Hawley native has become a fan favorite while all the while just catching touchdowns and becoming a blocking nightmare. Ellefson, another captain, showed the promise early on in his career, catching three touchdowns in 2017. He exploded to eight touchdowns on 14 receptions last season and has five more this year, becoming the school's leader in touchdown grabs for a tight end. He's a model citizen off the field, nominated to the All-State Good Hands team for all the work Ellefson has done off the field, going to elementary schools in Fargo. An impressive young man on and off the field.
James Hendricks - An outstanding high school quarterback at Bemidji High School, Hendricks soon realized that position may not lead him to the field. He sat down with Klieman after the 2016 season and emerged the following spring as a safety. Hendricks soon became a ball hawk, racking up four interceptions. He also played linebacker in one game that season, while also still filling in at quarterback. Hendricks got better in 2018, becoming an all-conference safety and adding five more interceptions. He was named a team captain this year and has become a true leader, all the while being a standout on defense. A true leader who will be missed on the back end.
#NDSUSeasonOpenerCountdown: #28: An electric running back who has thrilled fans the last two years with his bursts of speed that have found the endzone. The most exeperienced Bison running back, plenty of expectations on the former @FSHSFootball standout, number 28, @28TXB. pic.twitter.com/zWIt5a9cuF
#NDSUSeasonOpenerCountdown: #28: An electric running back who has thrilled fans the last two years with his bursts of speed that have found the endzone. The most exeperienced Bison running back, plenty of expectations on the former @FSHSFootball standout, number 28, @28TXB. pic.twitter.com/zWIt5a9cuF— Dom Izzo (@DomIzzoWDAY) August 3, 2019
Ty Brooks - A fan favorite, his path at NDSU has not been a straight one. Brooks was moved to cornerback early in his collegiate career, then wide receiver and special teams. He found his way back to running back in 2017 and midway thru that season, became a star. Brooks scored three touchdowns against USD late in the season and became an explosive change-up back. That continued last season as Brooks kept making big plays, scoring five touchdowns. He was named a team captain this season and has been healthy this year, scoring five touchdowns while nearly running for 800 yards. Brooks big plays has become a hallmark for Bison fans over the last three years.
An impressive group of players, maybe not the most high profile guys in Bison history, but ones that have made an impact and have a chance to make history Saturday.