Kolpack: In a rarity, Bison start spring football with more questions than answers
North Dakota State will have to re-tool a good chunk of its defense from 2022 national title runner-up team
One by one, starting with the transfer portal, filtering to graduation and then postseason coaching defections, North Dakota State hasn’t seen this kind of exodus from its defense since the run of NCAA Division I FCS national championships started in 2011.
There are more questions than answers as spring football practice begins Thursday. For the first time in a long time, the Bison need to fill some holes and there appear to be no clear-cut favorites to do so.
Welcome to the real world of college football.
The modern way of doing spring practices these days is to rest the veterans and test the young players. There will be a lot of testing to be done on the defensive side, which historically has been one of the top units in the FCS and a major reason for nine national championships.
Lost to graduation were sixth-year starting safeties Dawson Weber and Michael Tutsie, starting cornerback Destin Talbert, defensive end Spencer Waege and linebacker James Kaczor. The notable departures via the transfer portal were cornerbacks Courtney Eubanks and Marques Sigle and safety Dom Jones. Sigle is with Kansas State this spring, but Eubanks and Jones have yet to publicly commit anywhere.
Those players started a combined 91 games last season and that doesn’t include Jones and Sigle, who weren’t considered starters but played extensively.
NDSU hasn’t been this untested in the defensive backfield since 2010 when Colten Heagle started as a true freshman at strong safety and Marcus Williams was a redshirt freshman cornerback. The Bison did have senior Freddie Banks at the other cornerback spot and junior Daniel Eaves eventually took over at free safety.
At this time last year, the Bison had Jayden Price, Eubanks and Sigle for at least two more seasons at cornerback. Only Price remains.
And this from a defense that was ninth in the FCS in scoring defense last year giving up an average of 20.2 points per game. That’s down, rather significantly, from the 11.1 given up per game in the fall 2021 title season.
NDSU’s other national championship seasons had a similar flavor. While first round-draft picks like quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Trey Lance took the top headlines, NDSU’s defense gave up the following in other championship years: 12.3 ppg in 2019, 12.6 in 2018, 11.6 in 2017, 15.3 in 2015, 14.1 in 2014, 11.3 in 2013, 11.5 in 2012 and 12.7 in 2011.
Hard to not be successful when reaching the end zone twice will win a game.
Add to that a new defensive coordinator (Jason Petrino) and new defensive tackles coach (Jeff Phelps) and spring takes on a greater importance than usual.
The NDSU offense isn’t without its questions, either. Quarterback Cam Miller returns from a solid season. So does running back TaMerik Williams. But starting running back Kobe Johnson unexpectedly went into the transfer portal after the season, with his destination yet unknown. Fullback Hunter Luepke, albeit injured and played in 10 games, is getting ready for the NFL Draft as is offensive tackle Cody Mauch.
The Bison offensive line depth is expected to take up the slack and that unit may remain as a strength of the team. Center Jalen Sundell is returning from injury and may be moved to Mauch’s left tackle spot.
The Bison have built their lofty status by being deeper than almost everybody else over the years.
That theory will get a workout starting Thursday.