Bison spring football primer: A look at each position group
North Dakota State's new faces will get plenty of opportunities to shine in spring practice, which opened Thursday.
FARGO — The first day of spring football at North Dakota State looked like any other practice — on the field anyway. There were 53 million reasons it’s a different world for Bison football with the new Nodak Mutual Football Performance Complex, with the number representing the cost of the facility.
Nick Goeser, the longest tenured coach on staff, remembers the days of outdoor ball on Dacotah Field this time of year. That came with a benefit, too.
“It’s hard to believe this is ours,” he said, looking around the building after Thursday morning’s practice. “I remember the days you’re out on Dacotah Field and the wind is blowing and you can’t see from one side of the field to the other. I also believe that developed some toughness with our group.”
Developing toughness, and talent, is the goal over the course of the next month. The Bison lost several key players from last season but there are plenty of opportunities to go around for the returning players. Here is a look at each position group heading into the next 14 practices:
Senior Cam Miller completed 66% of his throws last season with 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He’s the unquestioned starter with sophomore Cole Payton behind him, the question being if Payton will get more involved in the offense with his arm.
Payton played in 13 games carrying the ball 38 times averaging an impressive 7.5 yards per attempt. But he only attempted 12 passes, completing 8.
“I don’t think there would be any reason we wouldn’t trust him to come in and throw the football,” said head coach Matt Entz. “I think those opportunities are ahead. Cole is a tremendous talent and has great understanding of what we’re doing offensively and we just need to find the right time and play to utilize him.”
Sophomore Peter Anderson and redshirt freshman Nathan Hayes are behind Miller and Payton.
Senior TaMerik Williams is healthy and ready to go, a stark contrast to last season when he was rehabilitating a stress fracture in his pelvic bone that lingered into the start of last season. It’s doubtful Williams will get many carries in spring ball with senior TK Marshall also a known commodity.
The next month could be big for sophomores Barika Kpeenu from West Fargo Sheyenne and Owen Johnson from Mankato, Minn.
No Bison running back had more than Williams’ 99 carries last season, so wear and tear isn’t expected to be an issue. With just four backs on the spring roster, look for incoming true freshmen CharMar Brown from Omaha and Brady Wavrunek from Sioux City, Iowa, to get an early fall look.
Departing seniors Cody Mauch and Nash Jensen are expected to factor into the NFL Draft at the end of April, with Mauch a possible late first round or early second round pick. Jensen’s attention has been picking up since the end of the season. Those two made up the NDSU left side.
It appears probable that the Bison will switch senior Jalen Sundell from center to left tackle. Senior Brandon Westberg took over for the injured Sundell last year. Senior Jake Kubas returns at right guard and senior Mason Miller is returning from injury after starting most of the season at right tackle.
“I think you have to do what’s best for the Bison and find the five that are going to help us win football games or be competitive on Saturday,” Entz said. “I think you’re going to see — I don’t want to say experimentation — but when you’re seniors, you better have some flexibility. How do you create value for yourself?”
Senior Grey Zabel played a lot in a couple of roles and could find his way into the starting lineup. Senior tackles Hunter Poncius and Jake Rock have been in the program a long time. Isaac Zatechka, a 6-4, 290-pound transfer from Missouri, is making a smooth transition, Entz said.
It’s not a matter of numbers for the Bison, who have 15 receivers vying for a bevy of roles with this group. Zach Mathis, RaJa Nelson, Braylon Henderson and Jake Lippe are the veterans.
“Zach Mathis might be as strong and big and physical as he’s been since he’s been here,” Entz said. “The No. 1 reason why is he’s still healthy. Hopefully this added weight will increase his durability as we move into this spring.”
Mathis led the team in receptions last season with 35. Nelson had 15 catches and Henderson 14. Sophomore Eli Green saw the field more late in the season. Giancarlo Volpentesta is entering his fifth year in the program, junior Tyler Terhark from Sheyenne his fourth and sophomore Chris Harris his third.
Sophomore Bryce Lance played primarily special teams. Redshirt freshmen Mekhi Collins and Carson Hegerle from West Fargo were highly touted recruits a year ago, with Hegerle close to reaching the field last season before getting hurt in practice.
Cedric Wall, Kellen Entz and John Gores all redshirted last season.
“There’s a lot of young depth right now and that’s why spring will be great for us,” Matt Entz said.
Senior Joe Stoffel assumed the reins last year after Noah Gindorff called it a career after three games because of a recurring ankle injury that required surgery. Stoffel is a known commodity finishing second on the team in receptions with 25.
Sophomores Finn Diggins from Perham, Minn., and Truman Werremeyer from Fargo Davies are not.
“Those guys need to develop,” Entz said.
Veterans Logan Hofstedt and Hunter Brozio will be limited because of injury rehabilitation.
There is no shortage of numbers with this group; 17 are going through spring ball. At defensive end, senior Jake Kava is returning from injury and as a veteran may not see a lot of reps. Neither will senior end Tony Pierce, but everybody else appears to be fair game for toe-to-toe action.
Sophomore Kole Menz played more as last season progressed, as did senior Dylan Hendricks, who saw his first action after injuries marred the first three years of his career. Junior Loshiaka Roques will miss this spring with a shoulder injury. The coaches like how Iowa State transfer Hunter Zenzen has meshed into the system.
At defensive tackle, seniors Eli Mostaert, Will Mostaert and Javier Derritt are back. Sophomores Kody Huisman and Jaxon Duttenhefer grew into their roles. All are in the 280 pound-plus range.
Who this spring will perhaps benefit the most are the redshirt freshmen linemen like Kelton McCaslin, Toby Anene, Josh Magin and Logan Larson.
“I’m really excited about our freshman class, I feel like we hit on those kids,” Entz said.
Entz made note of the physical gain of redshirt freshman Toby Anene from the Twin Cities.
Magin weighed 190 as a junior in high school in Shakopee, Minn., and is now 270.
Like the defensive end group, numbers aren’t a problem with 12 linebackers. A bunch have played a bunch, like middle linebackers Nick Kubitz and Luke Weerts. Kubitz is up to 225 pounds and Weerts is healthy after injury issues late last season.
Senior Cole Wisniewski is back at one outside spot. Julian Wlodarczyk played a lot with seven starts and 33 tackles. Entz calls sophomore Logan Kopp “a tremendous young player.” Junior Oscar Benson from Hillsboro, N.D., was an outside backup along with sophomore Enock Sibomana from Fargo South.
“I think everything’s open right now,” Entz said. “I don’t think anyone is written in stone. It will be interesting.”
There were more departures in this group than a plane full of people from Hector International Airport. About the only veteran is senior cornerback Jayden Price, who is back for his sixth year of school.
The coaches appear to be phasing out the traditional strong safety/free safety look in favor of more of a left side/right side approach.
“We’ve had two different styles of safety and people knew that,” Entz said. “We want to make those two spots more interchangeable.”
The leading candidates are senior Sam Jung, juniors Ty Satter from Fargo Davies and Ryan Jones and redshirt freshmen Hudson Artz and Darius Givance.
“We’re going to find out who can play safety,” Entz said.
Sophomore Reggie King was moved from safety to cornerback. Redshirt freshmen Jaquise Alexander and Keegan Huber are getting early attention. NDSU brought in transfer Marcus Sheppard from Bowling Green to compete for a starting job.
“Our coaches have been meeting with these guys, doing everything we can per NCAA rules to get them up to speed as quickly as we can,” Entz said.
Senior Griffin Crosa took over as the regular kicker and came through making 10 of 11 field goals and hitting all 67 of his extra-point attempts. Punter Kaiden Steindorf will be in his third year as a starter.
Brozio is the long snapper.
“We have guys coming back who have provided great consistency for us,” Entz said.
Price is coming back as one of the top punt returners in FCS.