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Bison start with stability: Several backup positions undecided entering spring football

A year ago, the North Dakota State coaches were in a football casino, with no idea of the odds they were facing. That wasn't the case Thursday, one day before the Bison began spring practice. Most of the starters are established. "We feel a lot d...

A year ago, the North Dakota State coaches were in a football casino, with no idea of the odds they were facing.

That wasn't the case Thursday, one day before the Bison began spring practice. Most of the starters are established.

"We feel a lot different than we did last year," said head coach Craig Bohl, about to begin his second year. "We know who these guys are."

The task for the next 15 practices, then, is to find capable backups. Quarterback is a prime example.

Senior Tony Stauss will get limited repetitions so the Bison coaches can evaluate redshirt freshmen Steve Walker, Andy Thoreson and Nick Jackson.

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Walker may have the upper hand since he was listed as the No. 3 quarterback last year behind Stauss and graduated senior Jason Jordan. But Bohl said he still wants to get a more complete picture of all three freshmen.

He also said incoming freshman Ryan Parsons of Blaine, Minn., will get a strong look next fall.

That's not the only position with questions of depth. Here's a look at the other areas of the team:

Running back

Sophomore Kyle Steffes, who broke his leg last season, is at full strength. But he won't get full-time work because -- like quarterback -- the pressing need is to find the top backup. It will come from a lot of four players: senior Terrance Fleming, sophomore Mark Moore and freshmen Cinque Chapman and Symeon Cabell.

The same goes for fullback. Senior Johnny Frank will open at No. 1 with sophomore Dan Nicholson and freshman Matt Weidler behind him. Bohl said incoming freshmen Tyler Roehl from West Fargo and Tyler Jangula from Williston could figure into the mix.

"More so here than any other position," Bohl said.

Receiver

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Senior Allen Burrell and junior Marques Johnson will concentrate on track leaving junior Travis White and senior Chuck Wiest as the most experienced players.

Freshman Mike Dragosavich will see limited time because the Bison want to first establish him as the punter. Junior Tim Erickson is coming back from knee surgery and will compete with junior Donte Pettis.

Junior Andy DelaBarre returns at tight end. But the backup is a race between at least five players.

Offensive line

The core returns in left tackle Nick Zilka, left guard Mark Sanders, center Rob Hunt, right guard Justin Buckwalter and right tackle Tim Popowski. The key is to find players behind them.

The top candidates are sophomore Jack Erickson, junior Mike Piraino, and freshmen Nate Safe, Jerrod Wagner and Tyler Lekang.

"We may move some guys around," Bohl said.

Three players will miss spring drills because of injury: senior Mark Sanders (back), junior Justin Monson (knee) and sophomore Adam Tadisch (back).

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Defensive line

A year ago, it was the weakest link.

But the addition of transfers Dwight Summerville and Travis Ware last year and Cory Campbell and Rodney Thompson this winter have the Bison breathing easier.

Plus, senior Isaac Snell asserted himself at noseguard and sophomore Justin Frick saw some duty as a true freshman. A starting defensive end to replace Jamel Thomas is the biggest chore. Sophomore Alex Kingsley was moved from linebacker and he'll compete with Campbell and sophomore Brian Dahl.

Linebacker

Senior Brian Erenberg will sit out because he'll be a sixth-year student next fall. Outside linebacker Jayd Kittelson will have limited repetitions so the Bison can get a good look at other players.

Junior Kole Zimmerman, who is also playing baseball, is slated as the starting middle linebacker. But the coaches are high on freshman Joe Mays, who is 250 pounds and runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash.

Senior Rob Mamula and freshman Brett Itterman are 1-2 at an outside linebacker spot, although either Zimmerman or Erenberg could be moved there next fall.

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Bohl said incoming freshmen Mike Maresh (Champlin, Minn.) and Nick Compton (Rosemount, Minn.) may play right away.

Secondary

Senior Jared Essler is a top caliber free safety. Sophomore Craig Dahl will open as the starting strong safety. Senior Matt Gorman is established at cornerback while juniors Bobby Babich and Scott Walter are battling at the other cornerback spot. A host of young players are competing for backup spots at all four positions.

Special teams

Junior Cory Vartanian and long snapper Allan Woodstrom are back. Both were steady last season.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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