NDSU linebackers wonder how good a fall Bison team would have been

North Dakota State's Jackson Hankey (52), Aaron Mercadel (55) and Tony Pierce (90) stop James Madison's Percy Agyei-Obese during the NCAA FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — With each question, it was as if North Dakota State junior linebacker Jackson Hankey took longer to think about it before formulating an answer. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then silence is worth 1 million.

That’s probably a common reaction for Bison football players in the wake of their fall season being canceled, with only the Missouri Valley Football Conference games to be scheduled in the spring.

Asked if a spring season is attractive to him, Hankey paused.

“To be honest, not really,” he said. “All of a sudden you’re looking at a spring season followed by a two-month offseason and then a full fall season. I guess I can’t see a whole lot of advantage to it. If the spring is an option and we get to play some football games, I’d rather have that than nothing.”

For senior linebacker Aaron Mercadel, there is nothing more to college football. A sixth-year player who has graduated, he’s choosing to move on with life. He’s currently signed up for a couple classes just because he needed them to play this fall.


But now that the COVID-19 pandemic has erased that, he said it’s time to go job searching.

“Figuring out the next step for me,” Mercadel said.

He said the decision first started hitting him when ESPN “College GameDay” analyst David Pollack started pushing for the Division I Football Championship Subdivision to permanently play its season in the spring to get more exposure.

That comment hit Twitter hard.

Mercadel said he talked with head coach Matt Entz at that point and told him he didn’t think a spring season would be an option.

“It was that thing to stop chasing something that wouldn’t be guaranteed,” Mercadel said. “I came back to play in the fall but then I’m ready to move on.”

NDSU was shooting to play three non-conference games this fall, but apparently found only one taker and that wasn’t enough to keep the team in fall camp. Entz broke the news to his players last Friday.

Mercadel is the only confirmed senior who won’t return in the spring. There may be others.


“Our message to the team was to control what we can control and that everybody was always chasing stats to be the best team in Bison history,” he said. “I promise this will be the strongest team in Bison history because we’re going to come back from this stronger than anybody else in the country.”

Hankey wonders how strong a fall Bison team would have been. It’s questionable if quarterback Trey Lance and left tackle Dillon Radunz will return in the spring because of NFL Draft implications.

Asked what he’ll miss most about this fall and Hankey, who led the team in tackles last year, took an even longer pause. NDSU is the three-time defending FCS national champions and had several key players returning.

“I guess the biggest thing is we’re not going to be able to see how good this team was going to be,” he said. “I look at last year’s championship game and I think we had a good shot at it again this year but I guess we’ll never know.”
One other fact about this fall he’ll never know: the University of Oregon game. That was canceled in July when the Pac-12 Conference eliminated non-league games. That finished NDSU’s Sept. 5 opener in Eugene, Ore., which would have been the Bison’s first FBS opponent since playing Iowa in 2016.

“I thought that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hankey said. “I’m thinking to myself, I’m a kid from Park River (N.D.) and all of a sudden I had an opportunity to play against the Rose Bowl champs. We had a chance to go up there and play them and who knows what would have happened. I guess we’ll never know and that upsets me, but that’s reality and we’re going to have to live with it.”

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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