The most pressing questions for Bison football heading into spring drills

FARGO-The glory of the 2017 Division I FCS national title has somewhat faded over the winter, the result of the North Dakota State football players getting back to work with winter conditioning and the coaches getting back to work recruiting and ...

Defensive lineman Greg Menard David Samson / The Forum
Defensive lineman Greg Menard David Samson / The Forum

FARGO-The glory of the 2017 Division I FCS national title has somewhat faded over the winter, the result of the North Dakota State football players getting back to work with winter conditioning and the coaches getting back to work recruiting and planning for spring football.

It's here already, spring ball, with the first workout set for Wednesday. The Bison will return 26 players who started at least one game last season, and that doesn't include All-American candidate Greg Menard, who tore the ACL in his knee last August in practice.

Who will be the backup quarterback?

It's a dead heat right now between redshirt freshmen Holden Hotchkiss from Lakeland, Fla., and Noah Sanders from Lakeville, Minn. Hotchkiss made the travel roster late last season, mostly to help with signals from the sideline, so he may have an inch up on Sanders, but that can change. Bison head coach Chris Klieman expects the competition will go far into fall camp next August. "I don't think in 15 days somebody can win the job that quickly," he said. "I think it's going to take what they do in the spring and how much carryover is there in the summer and how much carryover would we get to fall camp."

Will long snapper/punter be determined this spring?


NDSU has been blessed with great long snappers for years, with the four-year career of James Fisher coming to an end last season. Sophomore linebacker Ross Kennelly was Fisher's backup and will be the primary long snapper this spring with James Hendricks the backup. The Bison also lost punter Jackson Koonce, with sophomore Garret Wegner the lone punter on the roster this spring. Klieman said he expects to bring in "a few guys" to compete for the punting job in the fall.

Will any running back be considered for a redshirt?

Probably not, Klieman said. Certainly not Lance Dunn or Bruce Anderson, the returning senior duo. Juniors Ty Brooks and Demaris Purifoy and sophomore Adam Cofield already redshirted leaving sophomore Seth Wilson as the only redshirt candidate. But Wilson proved late last year he's a threat at catching the ball and could be used as a multi-dimensional back.

What is the ceiling of Jabril Cox, and where does he play?

At 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds, the sophomore has the size and speed to play any of the three linebacker positions, but will stay at outside linebacker. Senior Dan Marlette is sitting out this spring after tearing an ACL last fall, but will be the starting middle linebacker with senior Levi Jordheim at the other outside spot. Cox is the playmaker and Klieman said his position is becoming more of a hybrid spot combining linebacker skills with the ability to cover like a safety. With the freedom to roam the field like that, look for Cox to lead the team in tackles again.

How will the return of Greg Menard affect the defensive line rotation?

The senior will be doing some individual work this spring and is expected to be at full capacity when practice starts in early August. He'll return to his customary defensive end spot on the right side, giving right-handed quarterbacks the uncomfortable thought of having to look out for him on their blind side. Senior Caleb Butler will start at the other defensive end spot, but considering how often the Bison rotate defensive linemen it really won't matter who starts. They return senior Aaron Steidl, senior Blake Williams and junior Cole Karcz in the middle. Senior Stanley Jones, junior Derrek Tuszka and sophomore Logan McCormick are back on the outside.

Which young player will emerge at wide receiver?


The odds-on favorite is redshirt freshman Christian Watson, but it won't happen this spring. He's sidelined recovering from a knee injury suffered during the season. The Bison currently have four seniors in their two-deep chart at both receiver spots in Darrius Shepherd, Desmond Cain, Dallas Freeman and Dimitri Williams. It's possible this question won't get answered until halfway through fall camp when true freshmen Kenneth Channelle from Jacksonville, Fla., Zach Mathis from Tampa, Fla. and Phoenix Sproles from New Hope, Minn., get a chance to show what they can do.

Are the redshirt freshmen tight ends ready?

The most viable candidates right now are 6-6, 247-pound Josh Babicz and 6-6, 257-pound Noah Gindorff. Babicz is listed as the backup to junior Ben Ellefson on the two-deep chart so he in theory probably gets first crack. The Bison lost their primary receivers at this position in Jeff Illies and Connor Wentz (eight touchdown receptions between them in 2017), so whoever proves themselves in the passing game will improve their chances of getting on the field. NDSU has three other redshirt freshmen tight ends in 6-4, 269-pound Cody Mauch, 6-3, 266-pound Costner Ching and 6-3, 246-pound Austin Avery.

Who will replace Tre Dempsey?

It won't be a rookie, that much is certain at free safety, a spot Dempsey held for three seasons. Junior James Hendricks was the backup last year at strong safety, but is moving to free this spring and will compete with senior Jaylaan Wimbush and junior Jaxon Brown. The moving of Wimbush was unexpected, but NDSU was able to do it with its depth at cornerback with the emergence of sophomore Josh Hayes and junior Marquise Bridges. Wimbush was a two-year starter at cornerback who started his career at NDSU as a safety. Klieman said Wimbush will play both safety and cornerback this season while Hendricks will play both free and strong safety.

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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