FARGO — The first of five burning questions for the North Dakota State football team this fall is so obvious that it’s almost too common to consider it part of the hot stove. And it’s not just hot, either.
That’s the nature of the position of quarterback, especially at a school where the last three fall season starters have been NFL draft picks. Who will be the next Carson Wentz? Easton Stick? Trey Lance?
Is that even possible?
The candidates appear to be threefold with practice beginning on Friday: redshirt freshman Cam Miller, sophomore transfer Quincy Patterson and true freshman Cole Payton. It’s unlikely the Bison would hand the keys to a first-year player considering the other two have experience and the NCAA four-game rule is too enticing to gain some snaps and yet not lose any eligibility.
That would mean fall camp could be a battle between Miller and Patterson. Miller took over for Zeb Noland late in the spring, starting two games. He completed 30 of 59 passes (51%) with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Patterson is an intriguing prospect after transferring from Virginia Tech. His passing stats in parts of three seasons with the Hokies (22 of 52 for 42%) were not good, but he has the size at 6-foot-3, 246 pounds and sheer potential with good arm strength and speed.
And he’s been through some high-level game situations like scoring the game-winning, two-point conversion in a six-overtime win over North Carolina, the longest game in Atlantic Coast Conference history. He started against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
Patterson has three years of eligibility remaining since he played within the four-game NCAA rule as a true freshman and last fall didn’t count because of the pandemic. He transferred to NDSU last January and went through an entire spring of practice.
2. The sack master
When Derrek Tuszka left for the Denver Broncos as a seventh-round draft choice following the 2019 season, he also took with him an enormous quarterback sack threat from defensive end. He averaged almost one per game and was a constant presence in the opposing team’s backfield.
Before Tuszka, defensive end Greg Menard was the sack star. And he came on the scene after Kyle Emanuel won the Buck Buchanan Award in 2014.
The Bison are looking for that guy.
Senior Spencer Waege, a preseason all-Missouri Valley Football Conference first team selection, is the obvious heir apparent. He had 4.5 QB sacks last spring, tying him for top honors with defensive tackle Eli Mostaert, but also had just one QB hurry play. Injuries over the course of Waege’s career have not helped, either.
Senior Brayden Thomas showed flashes in his first season at the FCS level after transferring from Division II Minnesota State Mankato. Senior Logan McCormick is in his fifth year in the program and is a steady veteran presence and Tony Pierce is entering his fourth year as a dependable option.
3. Ram stability
It’s the nickname for the offensive line and with six players who started at least one game last spring returning, the task this fall is to find some stability. Senior Cordell Volson, for instance, started games at left tackle, right tackle and right guard.
Only senior right guard Nash Jensen and junior center Jalen Sundell started at the same position in all 10 spring games. In 2019, the Bison started the same five offensive linemen in all 16 games.
Senior Cody Mauch returns at left tackle. Sophomore Grey Zabel started three games at right guard before an injury sidelined him for the playoffs. Sophomore Jake Rock had a solid playoff start against Eastern Washington until he got hurt in practice the following week. Bison coaches like the progress made by sophomore Mason Miller from Ada, Minn.
Add to that mix University of San Diego transfer Luke LaCilento at guard and the Bison have options.
“We probably have more depth then we did in the spring due to the fact we played so many individuals,” said head coach Matt Entz. “It’s allowed us to have great depth going into the fall. All of the players are healthy up there.”
4. The Kramer factor
There is no questioning what head strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer has meant to the Bison program over the years. He’s currently the longest tenured member on staff and it’s not even close, having been at NDSU since 2004.
Like all strength coaches, he has a method and a timeline to offseason conditioning, but that was interrupted with the pandemic and the spring season. NDSU’s last game was the 24-20 loss to Sam Houston State in the FCS semifinals on May 2.
The players were afforded time off for rest after that, but were back for summer conditioning in early June. Moreover, with spring season practice starting in early February, the winter conditioning program wasn’t its usual self.
The hope for all FCS schools is that beginning this week, the yearly timeline of player development returns to normal.
5. Shut it down
There was a long time last spring when NDSU thought it would have cornerback Josh Hayes for this fall. But Hayes entered the transfer portal late in the spring season and since ended up at Virginia.
His departure hurt in the all-important “shutdown” cornerback spot, the guy counted on to stop the opposing team’s best receiver. Courtney Eubanks showed promise as a true freshman in the playoffs. Senior Destin Talbert and junior Jayden Price return with experience, but the Bison brought in Eastern Michigan transfer Jerodd Vines to compete for a starting job.
NDSU has been flush with shutdown corners over the years. For the first time since early in the 2010 season when Marcus Williams was in his first season, the resume is open.