Bison practice reunion expected to draw numerous NFL players

FRISCO, Texas-It's turned into the tradition within the North Dakota State FCS football tradition. Once again, former players are turning out in full force for NDSU's sixth appearance in the title game and the list includes its marquee NFL player...
North Dakota State tight end Connor Wentz, left, and his teammates cheer while watching the scrimmage between the football support staff during practice at the Toyota Stadium Complex on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2017. David Samson / The Forum

FRISCO, Texas-It's turned into the tradition within the North Dakota State FCS football tradition. Once again, former players are turning out in full force for NDSU's sixth appearance in the title game and the list includes its marquee NFL players.

The Bison will go through a hour walk-through practice late Friday afternoon, with the first several minutes a group hug of sorts between the alums and the current players. NDSU is expecting about 250 former players.

"That's special to me and it's special to all the guys who put on the jersey," said NDSU head coach Chris Klieman.

That includes the current NFL contingent of San Diego Chargers linebacker Kyle Emanuel, Baltimore Ravens running back John Crockett, Indianapolis Colts tackle Joe Haeg, Denver Broncos offensive tackle Billy Turner, Houston Texans cornerback Marcus Williams and Cleveland Browns cornerback CJ Smith.

Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz is not expected to be in attendance. His cousin, Bison tight end Connor Wentz, said he didn't know if Carson was going to make it to Frisco. Former Bison linebacker Ramon Humber's Buffalo Bills are playing Jacksonville in the NFL playoffs on Sunday.

Koonce's career comes full circle

NDSU senior punter Jackson Koonce is making his first appearance in an FCS title game, although the surroundings are not foreign. He transferred from Southern Methodist University, located a short drive away in Dallas.

His phone has been busy with text messages.

"It's pretty special to be able to come back here, back to where it all started," Koonce said. "I'm having a blast."

Koonce, from Oceanside, Calif., transferred to NDSU last season after spending two years at SMU. He had been to Frisco before with former Mustang teammates who lived in the area.

"I would see the stadium and stuff," he said, "but I never thought I would end up playing here. It's kind of funny with SMU being right down the street. When I transferred I said I hope I can come back and finish where it started."

Allison back at practice

Bison starting cornerback Jalen Allison was in street clothes on Wednesday during NDSU's first practice in Frisco, but was in practice gear on Thursday. Running back Ty Brooks, however, did not participate in the light workout.

Allison injured his knee and Brooks his shoulder in the semifinal win over Sam Houston State.

Allison's return along with Jaylaan Wimbush means NDSU's starting cornerbacks at least have the appearance of being able to play on Saturday. Even if that happens, expect Marquise Bridges to play a lot at corner.

"I'm excited, we've been preparing so long to play for this," Bridges said. "I just plan on doing the same thing I've been doing all year. Just working and playing my role on the team."

Game time weather improving

It was in the minus-20s below last week when NDSU was practicing in Fargo in advance of Saturday's title game. The forecasted high temperature for Frisco on Saturday has continually improved as the week has gone along.

It's now up to 58 degrees.

That would represent a change of about 60 degrees since the Bison departed frigid Hector International Airport on Wednesday.

Klieman perhaps had the best comment on weather on Thursday when a reporter from another area of the country asked him how NDSU continually is able to recruit players from Florida.

"They come up here and they love it," Klieman said. "Those kids have come up and have had success and when you have success and you go back and tell the other folks it's a lot of fun up there. I've never heard somebody say it's too cold to win, so our guys have embraced it."

Seven straight Frisco trips for Gordon

Brian Gordon spent 12 years at NDSU, with his main responsibility directing the massive equipment operations of Bison football. He moved on to the conference administrative side last year when he was hired as the associate commissioner in charge of football and sports administration for the Colonial Athletic Association.

So with NDSU and James Madison of the CAA in Saturday's title game, Gordon has quite a run going: It will be his seventh straight FCS championship Saturday. This one is more difficult, however, considering all the time he spent in Fargo.

"I know a lot of guys on the NDSU sideline so that is a tough question," Gordon said. "Very emotional."

JMU tapped into his experience last year before playing Youngstown State in the title game. Gordon helped orchestrate the Bison moving party to Frisco in the five-year title run from 2011-15.

"They called me about behind-the-scenes operational things," he said. "Being here with JMU was kind of different. Obviously you know the routine but you're not as involved with planning like I was at NDSU. This year the school I worked for 12 years is here against one of our conference schools so it's been interesting so far."