FARGO-North Dakota State has found an offensive lineman recruiting pipeline that hardly anybody bothers to tap into at the NCAA Division I level, and it's not in Texas or Florida. They are little-known farm kids from north-central North Dakota who happen to take the meaning of hard work to a different level.
It's just the way they roll.
Hear this story and you'll hear it a 1,000 times as long as the Bison continue to tap into that region of the state: Wake up very early in the morning, drive several miles to the school gym and lift weights, go to school, go to football practice, go home and help dad with the family business.
In the case of offensive lineman Karson Schoening from Rolla, N.D., a high school senior who verbally committed earlier this summer, he would at times go right from football practice to help his dad harvest until 2 a.m. and then get up and go to school a few hours later.
"I've been doing it pretty much since I was 10 years old, so I've gotten used to it," he said.
Schoening lives on a farm five miles south of Rolla and will be the third NDSU offensive lineman from that section of the state when he joins the Bison for the 2016 season. Freshmen Tanner Volson from Balfour, N.D., and Luke Bacon from Granville, N.D., redshirted last season and are part of a rural North Dakota culture on the offensive line along with junior Landon Lechler from a ranch north of Beach, N.D., junior and Jack Plankers, who went to Kindred High School but lives in the Leonard zip code.
Work life is rarely 8 to 5.
"It's just the nature of North Dakota kids. Sometimes that's what it takes," said Terry Motl, Schoening's high school coach at North Prairie, a co-op that comprises the communities of Rolla, Rock Lake, Wolford and Rolette. "Last year we went to Mayville for a game and got home at 2:30 in the morning and he had to work the next morning. It's tough on kids, but he owns up and understands it's part of the job. A lot of times in preseason practice he'll come to practice for three hours in the morning and then be on a tractor or throwing bails. He's putting in long hours. He'll start a job and he'll finish it."
It certainly makes the transition to the Division I college football work ethic less daunting. NDSU's summer conditioning program requires players to lift as early as 5:30 a.m. Volson said he starts his day at the NDSU weight training facility at 5:30, goes to work at a local landscaping company at 7:30, where a lot of the task is dirt work, and does that until 5 p.m. Then it's back to the NDSU football facility to run at 6 p.m. Because he's also working at center, he'll stay and help the quarterbacks until they get done throwing at 7:30 or 8 p.m.
"They have a toughness to them," said Bison assistant coach Randy Hedberg, who recruits North Dakota. "They aren't afraid of the work ethic that it's going to take to play at our level. They know what it's like to get up at 5:30, work out and go work on the farm all day. That's part of the battle."
Hedberg has seen it for years. He grew up in Parshall, N.D., and attended Minot State. Volson and Bacon's rural homes are not far from Minot while Schoening lives a little farther to the northeast.
Not very many Division I schools outside of NDSU and the University of North Dakota make their way to that area of the world or have the time and resources to research the small-town North Dakota recruits, with the University of Wyoming being the exception. Certainly, former NDSU head coach Craig Bohl, now the Wyoming head coach, knows the recruiting value and work habits of small-town North Dakota players. The Cowboys got a commitment from Dustin Weeks of Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn High School, located north of Minot-the first North Dakota recruit Bohl has gotten to Wyoming.
"I hope it remains a secret as long as we can make it a secret," Hedberg said. "Wyoming knows about the secret and we're trying to fight them off a bit. It's been good for us."
What all of these players have in common is something besides work ethic that is uncoachable: size.
Volson is 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds. Bacon is 6-5, 285; Plankers is 6-7, 321; Lechler is 6-7, 310; and Schoening is 6-4, 298 heading into his senior high school season. For the farm kids, that's a lot of muscle to handle anything big that comes their way.
"I think the coaches like that we come from North Dakota and we just happen to be a lot bigger up here, too," said Schoening, projected as a guard or center. "We just happen to be naturally bigger, a bunch of farm boys."
Schoening knew Volson and Bacon from playing basketball against them in high school and talked to them during the recruiting process. He said Wyoming contacted him, but he didn't take a campus visit.
Volson said he never envisioned himself as a Division I player because he was at a 9-man school. He grew up with people actually telling him that. So it was a surprise when the BIson contacted him after his junior year of high school.
His father, Ralph Volson, owns a construction company called R V Enterprises, but agriculture isn't far from Tanner's blood. The family lives on a farmyard. Ralph grew up on a farm and Tanner has an aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather who are all farmers.
"I've learned that there's always work to be done," Tanner said. "You wake up and you work. You don't take what you don't earn."
It's that mentality that seems to naturally fit the offensive linemen mode at NDSU, which runs a West Coast offense that prides itself on power football.
"The hours here are sun up to sun down," Volson said. "I'm used to that. That's the way we did it at home. You wake up, go outside and work and you don't go back inside until it's dark out. That helped me here because some of the guys weren't used to that. It's normal for me to wake up early and go to bed late."
It didn't take Bison offensive line coach Conor Riley to realize that. When Volson checked into Bison fall practice last year-his first day on campus-Riley made a joke that Volson's father gave him the day off because of the long drive to Fargo.
Well, not really.
"He tells me, 'No, he had me up at 4:30 in the morning,'" Riley said, "'worked for four hours, ate lunch, hopped in the car and drove to Fargo.' So I said, 'Shoot, you're going to be on vacation the next 2½ weeks because we're going to let you sleep in until 6 or 6:30 in the morning.' That's the kid I want."
Riley is the coach who basically has to start from scratch when kids like Volson get to Fargo. Small-town football players usually don't get the luxury of having multiple assistant coaches that are able to specialize in a particular position.
That can also work to NDSU's advantage. Instead of taking a talented high school recruit and molding him into the mentality of a college football player, it's often the other way around.
"That's why our camps are so huge in the evaluation process," Riley said, "because the intangibles that I believe it takes to play at North Dakota State so often outweigh the measurables. And in college football today, that's what a lot of people miss. How much does he care? How important is football to him? Do they love football? A big difference in today's society with social media and everything else they do is, 'Do they love football or do they love being recruited?' Because I want the young man that loves football."