One quick glance may put a little doubt in the mind. Six out of the ten teams that the North Dakota State Bison football team play this season are ranked in the FCS preseason poll. Not included in those six is the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, who are ranked 17th in FBS.
If the Bison think that they can stroll into Frisco for the sixth straight time, they are wrong.
But, this is the Bison, and they know this. This year will be hard fought, and everyone will have to do their part, no matter where you start to look.
When Carson Wentz went down last season, the collective of Bison Nation held their breath. Then Easton Stick took over, and the holding of breath turned to excitement of the future. Stick was excellent in Wentz’s absence, and should look to continue form at the start of the season. Stick completed 61.2% of his passes last season, comparable to that number for Wentz (62.5%). The difference comes in yardages, an area Stick should hope to improve in for his first full season as starter. Stick was also voted captain, the first sophomore to hold the captaincy since 2005.
As for the rest of the offence, it is always hard to overlook the group of running backs. Four are returning for the Bison, including senior King Frazier. Frazier ran for 1,158 yards last season, continuing the streak of 13 straight years for the Bison with a 1,000 yard rusher. Also in the backfield return Bruce Anderson, Chase Morlock, and Lance Dunn.
In front of the runners, the offensive line return four veterans. Left guard Zack Johnson, center Austin Kuhnert, and right tackle Landon Lechler all hold down their starting spots. Joining them are Jack Plankers, the senior right guard, and left tackle Colin Conner, the third year sophomore who fills in the hole left by Joe Haeg.
Outside, the Bison return two of the biggest playmakers. RJ Urzendowski returns along side Darrius Shepherd. The pair led the team last year in yardage, combining for 1,244 yards and 11 TDs.
On the other side of the ball, the defense returns eight starters. The headliners include middle linebacker Nick DeLuca and Greg Menard. Both find themselves on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Award watch list, while DeLuca is the only FCS player on the watch list for the Butkus Award for best linebacker in the country.
Also returning is the safety duo of Robbie Grimsley and Tre Dempsey. Gimsley was third in the team in tackles after last season, while Dempsey was second in the team in interceptions, only behind current Philadelphia Eagles cornerback CJ Smith.
On special teams, Cam Pederson returns to kick. The sophomore struggled down the stretch last year, but coach Chris Klieman stuck with the young kicker, and hope is that he will be solid this year. The punt game will be Jackson Koonce’s area this year, with the junior replacing Ben LeCompte who graduated. Bruce Anderson should be the Bison’s main threat for returning kickoffs. Anderson returned two last year for touchdowns, both during the Bison’s playoff run.
Perhaps the most important return for the Bison is not only Kleiman, who extended his contract with NDSU through 2021, but the rest of the coaching staff. This is the first year under Kleinman where there are no changes to the coaching staff.
This year’s squad returns a strong core of last year’s team that went 14-2. This year, the schedule is stronger, but there will be feeling that the challenge is necessary in order to continue one of the best championship runs in college football history.