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McFeely: Fully healthy, Zabel could see bigger role for Bison

NDSU head coach Entz mentions third-year offensive lineman as possibility to fill Bison's coveted 'Ogre' position

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North Dakota State's Grey Zabel, 74, and teammates, from left, Jalen Sundell, Mason Miller and Jake Kubas wait their turn for photos during Bison Football media day at the Fargodome on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — In what was likely the biggest golf match measured by weight and height ever contested in the state, North Dakota State offensive linemen Grey Zabel (6-foot-6, 290 pounds) and Cody Mauch (6-foot-6, 303 pounds) fell to Bison twin brother defensive linemen Eli Mostaert (6-foot-3, 280 pounds) and Will Mostaert (6-foot-2, 260 pounds).

It happened in mid-July at Prairiewood Golf Course in Fargo. Nine holes. Promoted on social media as "The Match." Bison center Brandon Westberg served as the videographer, posting highlights (or something) on Twitter.

"Me and Cody kind of started golfing over the summer and kind of picked it up and obviously it kind of spread throughout the team that we thought — emphasis on thought — we were good enough," Zabel said. "The Mostaert brothers, they were also playing golf. And we just decided to do a scramble and have a little fun with it and, yeah, didn't go the best for us. But maybe next year."

It might be a rare time when defensive linemen get a victory over NDSU's blockers.

With nine of its top 10 offensive linemen returning from a crew that was dominant late last season, the Bison are again expected to be strong up front.

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Mauch will lead the way. The sixth-year senior from Hankinson, N.D., is being mentioned as a possible NFL Draft choice.

But expect Zabel to play a larger role than a year ago. The third-year guard, listed as a junior but with three seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to COVID rules, is fully recovered from an ankle injury that slowed him in 2021.

"Completely," Bison head coach Matt Entz said. "He's back to a better version of what he was in the spring of 2021."

That's when Zabel, then a true freshman, was thrown into the fire during the Football Championship Subdivision's unfortunate COVID-delayed spring season. The Bison lost a couple of starters after the fall season was called off, then needed capable bodies in the spring. Three true freshmen offensive linemen — Zabel, tackle Jake Rock and tackle Mason Miller — started games that season.

Zabel got three starts at guard before suffering an injury against South Dakota State in the regular-season finale. He played in 11 of 15 games last season, but wasn't as visible as expected.

"He had an ankle injury early that took him a long time to recover from. He broke his ankle late in the spring and because of the closeness of both seasons, we probably pushed him too fast in fall camp in the fall of '21," Entz said. "So now you see us maybe taking a little different approach with some young men. I think last fall — and I'll take a lot of the blame — we were extremely gung-ho to get back on the field."

Said Zabel: "There were some hurdles to get over. And that's just part of the recovery process, mentally and physically. I didn't come back as fast and as well as I would've liked. But that's just a part of the process of playing college football and getting banged up and getting injuries. So we just have to get over those hurdles."

Fully healthy, Zabel has emerged as a possibility to fill NDSU's "Ogre" position. That's when NDSU puts a tight end uniform number on a backup offensive lineman so it can have six offensive linemen on the field at once.

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Miller filled that role last season, but it's likely he'll start at right tackle after Cordell Volson's graduation. Mauch was the Ogre in 2019 and now starts at left tackle.

"I think he'd be a really good one. I think there's a number of guys who could do that, some that I've talked about who've really shown a level of improvement," Entz said. "I think what it becomes is probably a sixth or seventh offensive lineman becomes the Ogre."

Entz said there's still competition for starting spots on the offensive line, but early practices showed Mauch, Nash Jensen, Jalen Sundell, Jake Kubas and Miller taking reps with the No. 1 offense. If that holds, Zabel, Westberg and Rock presumably would be the top backups.

Senior Luke LaCilento was a second-string guard last season and Entz mentioned junior Hunter Poncius as a rising tackle.

"Nine of our top 10 are coming back, but what I'm really excited about is the improvement I've seen in numbers six, seven, eight and nine," Entz said.

Zabel would welcome the Ogre role.

"That's something we've talked about and that's a possibility," he said. "It just kind of depends on what the coaches see. Hopefully I'm able to help them in some way and help the team win some football games this fall."

And perhaps next summer, get a victory on the golf course.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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