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Big shoes to fill for Mertens

Steve Walker and Nick Mertens walked off the Coughlin-Alumni Stadium field together late Saturday afternoon, No. 11 leading with No. 18 in tow. No baton was passed, but the significance of the moment was obvious.

Steve Walker and Nick Mertens walked off the Coughlin-Alumni Stadium field together late Saturday afternoon, No. 11 leading with No. 18 in tow. No baton was passed, but the significance of the moment was obvious.

Walker, the undisputed leader of North Dakota State's football team for the past three years, just watched his career end with an inglorious 29-24 loss to South Dakota State in the chilly gloaming of Brookings, S.D. The quarterback who led the Bison to four remarkable comeback victories over the past two seasons threw an interception with 1:19 left that sealed the victory for the Jackrabbits.

The Walker era is over.

Mertens, a redshirt sophomore, is the guy who gets to replace him as the Bison's starting quarterback.

Talk about a tough act to follow.

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"Steve Walker is pretty much the savior of Fargo," senior linebacker Joe Mays said.

NDSU will lose 13 seniors from the team that went 20-2 over the past two seasons, including central pieces like Mays and offensive lineman Nate Safe. But none are more important than Walker, the cool cat with a brain like Einstein's and a knack for winning like Joe Montana.

"To say that all positions are the same, I disagree with that," said Craig Bohl, for now the Bison head coach. "Quarterbacks are a special position. ... I think Steve Walker is a heck of a football player."

Walker finished with a basketful of records at NDSU, but none were as important as the magic touch he exhibited time and again. While piling up remarkably efficient numbers that carved defenses apart like a Thanksgiving bird, he rarely made poor decisions or catastrophic mistakes. As long as the Bison had a chance, Walker took advantage. Just ask Cal Poly or Sam Houston State or Cal Davis.

Mertens will have to replace the legend as much as the player.

Bison coaches are unanimous in saying Mertens, an East Grand Forks, Minn., product who was a big winner in high school, will be up to the task. Mertens is more athletic than Walker and has a stronger throwing arm. But does he have that little something extra? That is the question.

"Nick has done a great job pushing me through practice. Anything from game-day stuff to coming in during the week to watch film, he's done great," Walker said. "I've tried to teach him as much as possible, give him a few things to learn. He's going to be special, and I know they are going to be right back in the hunt come next year."

Mertens is pretty much an unknown quantity, even if he's looked great in practice every day. With Walker ahead of him, there has been precious little game time for Mertens, and the minutes he's gotten have been strictly mop-up.

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Bison quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen acknowledged that game experience is invaluable but said Mertens has the tools and constitution to step into Walker's Bunyanesque cleats.

"It is Nick Mertens' time to take over. He's going to be a fourth-year junior, and everything he's done to this point is preparing him to be the guy next year," Vigen said.

Vigen also suggested that perhaps there is more than one way to skin a Bearkat or Mustang.

"We have a lot of tools coming back, so maybe everything will not all be on his shoulders," Vigen said. "It's been a fun couple of years, but a lot of times when so much was riding on Steve it was because of games like this (SDSU). We had to claw back into the game.

"Maybe," Vigen said, "our miracles might have to come in different ways."

To do things the Walker way would, no doubt, be a difficult proposition for Mertens.

Forum sports columnist Mike McFeely can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show, 10 a.m. to noon on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or mmcfeely@forumcomm.com . McFeely's blog can be found at www.areavoices.com Big shoes to fill for Mertens Mike McFeely 20071119

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