FARGO — Maybe the North Dakota State football fascination with a big wide receiver began with Mike Dragosavich in 2003. The 6-foot-5 recruit made some head turns in spring ball of 2004 with some big plays catching the ball.
Problem was head coach Craig Bohl put more value on Dragosavich as a punter and the receiver option was shelved.
More experiments of the 6-3-and-above receiver followed in the Division I era. Nick Powell-Calhoun, 6-4, was recruited in 2009 out of Santa Ana, Calif., but never saw the field. Andrew Oakland from Fargo South, 6-3, showed promise early in his career in 2012, but gave up Division I football for academic reasons.
While South Dakota State hit the jackpot after that with 6-4 Jake Wieneke from the Twin Cities, who the Bison could have offered but didn’t, NDSU put its hopes on 6-3 Demetrius Gray and 6-5 Sean Engel. Neither were productive and both transferred.
Now comes 6-6 Zach Mathis, a redshirt freshman from Tampa, Fla., who Bison head coach Matt Entz said last week has been making plays “all over the place” this month.
Those are some promising words.
“Just the fact we’re seeing him create separation,” Entz said on Monday. “One, with his speed in practice and two in the fact he’s 6-6; that creates a mismatch for most corners not just in the Missouri Valley but throughout the FCS.”
When told of his head coach’s praise, Mathis shrugged it off saying it’s a nice compliment but he’s more concerned about doing his job.
“A ton of wideouts are making plays, the quarterbacks are throwing great balls so without the quarterbacks there wouldn’t be a play to make,” Mathis said.
Who is Zach Mathis?
He’s from Berkeley Prep High School in Tampa who had modest statistics his senior year with 20 catches for 351 yards. The eye-popping part of that is one-fourth of his receptions, five, went for touchdowns.
His brother, Jacob Mathis, is a 6-4, 246-pound tight end who started his career at Mississippi in 2016-17 before transferring to South Florida. He had three receptions last year as a sophomore.
Jacob was a four-star prospect whose final college choices were Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Ole Miss. Zach wasn’t nearly that highly recruited, but did have FBS offers from Buffalo, Boston College, Army, Navy and Massachusetts.
“But I came here because of the winning tradition,” Zach said. “When you look at smaller FBS schools, yeah, they’re FBS, but they don’t win. And I wanted to win so I came here.”
He was 187 pounds when he enrolled last fall. He’s gained 10 and working on more, he said.
“You really have to buy in if you want to do well here,” Mathis said.
With the departure of senior receivers Darrius Shepherd and Dallas Freeman, and an injury to 6-3 sophomore Christian Watson this spring, the Bison are looking for somebody on the outside to turn some heads.
Entz said the big difference for Mathis from last fall is growth in the offense, things like lining up correctly and a better grasp of the playbook.
“He struggled at the new words — the communication that goes into calling plays at NDSU,” Entz said. “The thing I’m seeing now is he’s running his routes with confidence, going up and catching the football. He’s a big, long kid and has a huge catch radius and he’s stressing the defense right now because of his length.”
Whether he stresses nonconference opponents Butler, North Dakota, Delaware and UC Davis and the Missouri Valley Football Conference foes is another matter. It’s a safe bet teams will try to combat his height by jamming him at the line of scrimmage, which makes strength that much more important.
“I’m just trying to focus on being the best that I can be right now,” Mathis said. “I’m not worried about anything else.”