GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Tommy Schuster wasn't even supposed to be a University of North Dakota Fighting Hawk. He was supposed to be an Ashland University Eagle.
He was not supposed to be a Division I quarterback. He was supposed to play in NCAA Division II.
He was not supposed to be the star of the fastest-rising team in Football Championship Subdivision. That accolade was supposed to belong to someone else.
But in the wacky world of college football recruiting, nothing is ever final. Not even the word "commitment." And for that, UND is thankful.
Bison 43% Fighting Hawks 57%
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Schuster might be the hottest quarterback in FCS. The redshirt freshman will lead the No. 2-ranked Fighting Hawks to the Fargodome on Saturday for a rivalry matchup with fourth-ranked North Dakota State. He threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns last weekend to lead UND over Western Illinois 38-21 in Macomb.
Schuster's efforts earned him the Missouri Valley Football Conference's offensive player of the week award and continues an excellent rookie season for a quarterback whose only Division I offers aside from UND came from Dayton and Valparaiso of the Pioneer Football League.
"I was guaranteed a roster a spot at Dayton and Valparaiso, but those schools don't offer scholarships. UND was my only Division I scholarship offer," Schuster said Monday, March 15.
And even that came at the last possible moment.
If not for odd circumstances, Schuster wouldn't even be at UND.
The Fighting Hawks received a verbal commitment from Lincoln, Neb., quarterback Cedric Case in July 2018, meaning they weren't on the market for a QB for the December early signing period that year. So when Schuster's high school coach sent tape to UND, and many other schools, Fighting Hawks coaches weren't interested.
But Case de-committed from UND on Dec. 16 and signed instead with Texas State after a hard sell by Bobcats offensive coordinator Bob Stitt, the former University of Montana coach. UND was left without a quarterback in the early signing period.
"We did a home visit on the young man we had committed," Fighting Hawks head coach Bubba Schweigert said. "We're driving back from that commitment and we find out he's going on another visit. So we started searching our quarterback board and we got in touch with (Schuster). That's how it came about. We offered him late, he committed late."
After a tremendous high school career at Chippewa Valley in Michigan — he threw 67 touchdown passes and 4,956 yards as a three-year starter — Schuster had given a verbal commitment to Division II Ashland, a strong program in Ohio, in January 2019.
UND, meanwhile, made an offer to Logan Graetz of River Falls, Wis., on Jan. 16 and did an in-home visit two days later, according to Graetz's Twitter account. Graetz was UND's backup plan after Case de-committed.
But NDSU offered Graetz on Jan. 27 and he quickly committed to the Bison. Graetz is currently NDSU's third quarterback as a redshirt freshman.
Schuster said he didn't start talking with UND until a few days before the late signing day in February 2019. After talking with Schweigert and assistant coach Danny Freund, Schuster committed to UND without setting foot in Grand Forks. He didn't take his official visit to UND until after signing a letter of intent.
"It was a little different, that's for sure," Schuster said. "I just really wanted to go Division I. That's what I wanted to do and that's what I had my mind on. I jumped at the opportunity when they offered."
It's worked well. As a true freshman in 2019, Schuster replaced an injured Andrew Zimmerman and led the Hawks over ranked Sam Houston State at the Alerus Center. He won the starting job over fellow freshman Quincy Vaughan this spring and is 4-0, going 87 of 127 passing with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. That's a 69% completion clip, including a 29 of 37 performance (78%) at Western Illinois.
Schuster, listed at 6-foot and 195 pounds, is mobile but doesn't run unless flushed. Offensive coordinator Freund will slide the pocket and roll out Schuster. The offense is mostly safe throws to receivers or backs, who then try to make a play.
"They protect him," NDSU head coach Matt Entz said. "You watch film, there's little drop-back pass. It's all moving pocket, naked bootlegs, screen game, three-step drops. They are trying to get the ball out of his hands and keep the chains moving. There's nothing wrong with being second-and-five."
Schweigert said Schuster is a quiet, even-keel player who doesn't "get real high when things are going well and if things are going poorly or he makes a mistake he doesn't get too low."
That comes across in a phone conversation. Schuster sounds almost laid-back and calls himself "a pretty simple guy."
UND has been smooth offensively, with a strong running game behind running backs Otis Weah and Luke Skokna that's allowed Schuster more freedom to throw off play-action and bootlegs. The Hawks are averaging 441 yards a game.
"We've been efficient on offense," Schuster said. "I'm just trying to make good decisions, take care of the ball. Our offensive line has played great, not allowing sacks. If you look at the stats, we're really balanced. I'm just trying to play clean, efficient football."
Now the quarterback who wasn't supposed to be at UND has a chance with his teammates to knock off the giant to the south, an NDSU program that's won eight of nine FCS championships and has overshadowed the Fighting Hawks for more than 15 years.
"I don't know much about the rivalry, not being from around here. I know that they are a really good football team that's strong in every area. It's going to be a great challenge, but also a great opportunity for us," Schuster said.