FARGO — The top two names on the North Dakota State wide receiving depth chart are sophomores Christian Watson and Phoenix Sproles. They combined for 14 catches for 199 yards last season.

That's inexperience at a position where the Bison long had at least one veteran receiver.

The 6-foot-3, 196-pound Watson and the 5-foot-11, 187-pound Sproles are expected to lead a young Bison receiving group for the two-time defending NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision national champions.

"I think we're young and energetic and we're ready to put forth everything we've got, step up, make plays and kind of re-form the wide receiver room at NDSU," said Watson, from Tampa, Fla. "We don't need one guy that's going to go out there and make plays, we all together are going to make plays as a whole."

Watson had nine catches for 165 yards during his redshirt freshman season. Sproles added five receptions for 34 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman. Both will need to make sizable jumps in production to help offset the loss of star receiver Darrius Shepherd, who had 62 catches for 1,065 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior last fall.

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"You can't replace a Darrius Shepherd," Bison offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl said. "I mean, he was unreal."

Listed as the starters at Bison media day earlier this week, Watson and Sproles, from New Hope, Minn., are the only two receivers on the wide receiver depth chart who had catches last season. Sophomore Andy Voyen and junior Cole Jacob, listed as the No. 2s, didn't have a catch last fall.

"Phoenix Sproles needs to be the young man that can be the bell cow and get those guys going in the right direction," Bison head coach Matt Entz said.

Sproles played in all 15 games last season. His lone touchdown catch came in a 35-0 victory against Colgate in the FCS quarterfinals at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

Watson made his splash play against South Dakota during the regular season. He extended his long frame to make a leaping, acrobatic 37-yard catch against the Coyotes.

"Being around the program for more than two years now, I definitely think my knowledge level has gone up tremendously, exponentially, and I definitely think I'm ready to go out there and just be able to play fast," Watson said. "When it comes down to us needing to make a play, I definitely think I can make it. All of us in the wide receiver room are ready to step up and make plays."

While not on the depth chart, Entz also likes what he's seen from 6-foot-6, 186-pound wide receiver Zach Mathis early in fall camp. Mathis is a redshirt freshman from Tampa, Fla., who played in one game last season. He didn't lose a year of eligibility due to the new NCAA four-game rule.

"We're all pretty excited because everyone is fighting for a spot. Everyone is going out there trying their hardest to do the best they can and to show the coaches we can produce on Saturdays," Mathis said.

There will be a lot of new parts to the Bison passing game this season. Redshirt freshman Trey Lance and junior Zeb Noland, an Iowa State transfer, are competing for the starting quarterback spot. Easton Stick, who is now with the Los Angeles Chargers, left the program after last season as the winningest quarterback in FCS history.

North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl says "you can't replace" a receiver like Darrius Shepherd, but likes the young talent the Bison have at that position heading into the upcoming season. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl says "you can't replace" a receiver like Darrius Shepherd, but likes the young talent the Bison have at that position heading into the upcoming season. David Samson / The Forum

Roehl was elevated to offensive coordinator in the offseason and Noah Pauley is entering his first season as the team's wide receivers coach.

"I think right now, we're all growing together and developing together," Entz said.

Pauley likes what he's seen from the young receiving group thus far in fall camp.

"It's been fun," Pauley said. "There's still a long ways to go, and I'm excited to see where things head from here."

Entz said true freshmen receivers like Braylon Henderson, from Wylie, Texas, and DJ Baptist, from Hutto, Texas, could also work their way into the receiving mix as they gain experience.

"I think at some point during the season, could be similar to a Phoenix Sproles (last season), where they start to emerge once they have a grasp of a smaller version of the (play) call card," Entz said.

Roehl said the four-game rule, which allows a player to play up to four games without losing a year of eligibility, will give the Bison a chance to look at players like Henderson and Baptist in game situations.

"This four-game rule is pretty interesting." Roehl said. "Maybe they get in four early games and we just have to keep them on the field, or maybe it's too fast for them."