For the first time since 2010, the North Dakota State Bison football team does not have a new ring.
The quest to reclaim their crown started last week with the beginning of spring practice.
The team will have 15 sessions, culminating in the annual Green and Gold Spring Game on April 22. Admission to the spring game is free and open to the public.
Head coach Chris Klieman, a member of the Bison coaching staff for all five of their national titles, believes this has not made a difference in his team’s outlook.
“(There is no difference) other than the fact that it’s been three months rather than two (since the last game). From a player’s perspective, they’re pretty anxious to get back out there and compete,” Klieman stated at a press conference prior to the team’s first practice.
“They’ve bought right in right away like I knew they would,” Klieman added.
The Bison are returning 16 starters from last season. Offensively, quarterback Easton Stick will once again lead the Herd.
Stick, a junior, played his first full starting campaign last season. Prior to that, he went 8-0 filling in for Carson Wentz in the run up to NDSU’s 2015 national title. He threw for 2,331 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. He should be set to improve on those totals with one full season under his belt. Stick’s receiving weapons will remain the same this season.
Tight ends Jeff Illies and Connor Wentz and wide receiver R.J. Urzendowski are all seniors and will be used heavily in the passing game once again.
Last year’s top receiver, junior Darrius Shepherd, returns as well. Shepherd led the team with 642 receiving yards last season and was tied with Illies for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with five.
While the passing attack remains largely the same, the running game graduates two seniors, King Frazier and Chase Morlock. Frazier and Morlock were huge contributors in the Herd’s offense last season and throughout their time at NDSU. The senior duo rushed for 1,253 yards and 14 scores in the past season. Morlock also added two receiving touchdowns.
However, leading rusher Lance Dunn will return for his junior season. Dunn, from Waterloo, Iowa, toted the rock for 996 yards and found the end zone seven times last season.
Fellow junior Bruce Anderson will aim to step into a bigger role in the upcoming season. Anderson made a big splash as a freshman, returning kickoffs for touchdowns in two consecutive games and rushing for 5.6 yards per carry. Unfortunately, his development was derailed by an ankle injury in his sophomore season. In the nine games Anderson played, his average rose to 6.7 yards per carry.
On the other side of the ball, each level of the defense will be anchored by returning starters. On the defensive line, senior end Greg Menard will once again wreak havoc on opposing backfields. Menard led the team in sacks and tackles in his junior season, posting 15.5 and 11.5, respectively.
NDSU’s linebacking corps will be in good hands with senior Matt Plank and fifth-year player Nick DeLuca. Plank started 10 games in 2016 and was the Bison’s third leading tackler with 76 stops. A devastating shoulder injury requiring surgery cost DeLuca his 2016 season, but the Butkus Award watch-list nominee was granted medical hardship and another year of eligibility in late December.
The Herd’s secondary returns its top contributors from 2016 in the form of safeties Tre Dempsey and Robbie Grimsley and cornerbacks Jaaylan Wimbush and Jalen Allison. Dempsey was named first team All-America after a junior season in which he intercepted six passes, defended 13 and had 53 tackles. Grimsley picked off five passed and Allison had four interceptions. Additionally, Grimsley was second on the Herd with 84 tackles.
So much is left to develop in the five months before the beginning of the 2017 football season. With that being said, it is hardly far-fetched to think NDSU will be right back on top as one of the behemoths of the FCS, poised to begin a new national title streak.