All Eyes on Easton

BRITTANY HOFMANN | THE SPECTRUM
Easton Stick (12) has complied a 36-3 record as a four-year starter at NDSU.

The Easton Stick era at North Dakota State arrived with little fanfare. It came at a time when the wind had seemingly been taken out of the sails of a promising start to the 2015 season.

On Oct. 17, the Bison suffered a last-second loss to South Dakota, which dropped their record to 4-2. The defeat marked the first time since 2010 that the Bison had lost two games in a single season.

While the defeat stung, the Bison’s loss under center appeared to hit deeper. The following Tuesday, it was announced that a broken bone in Carson Wentz’s wrist would require surgery and a six to eight week spell on the sideline.

No one knew it at the time, but Oct. 20 would come to mark the unassuming beginning to what would become a legendary NDSU career for a precocious signal caller from Omaha, Nebraska named Easton Stick.

Still, it felt that the noose had gotten tighter and the margin for error thinner than ever for the four-time FCS champions. The Bison still had five more Missouri Valley games to handle and with a fresh face at the game’s most critical position no less. One slip in conference could mean ceding the conference title to Illinois State, who at the time Stick replaced Wentz were undefeated in conference play.

The redshirt freshman quickly doused the flames that seemed to be spreading around the program. For the second consecutive season, NDSU and the Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley title. The Bison earned the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, and Stick carried NDSU to the championship game.

At the time, there was reasonable speculation that Stick might start the national championship game over a healthy-but-rusty Wentz. In retrospect, such talk seems irrational, but the redshirt freshman’s exploits commanded such a discussion. In truth though, everyone knew it was Wentz’s team and his national championship to win.

The rest, of course, is history. Wentz lifted the trophy and became the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft. For Stick, his 8-0 run was only the opening salvo of his career.

Since then, Stick has transformed from injury-replacement to bona-fide NFL prospect himself. Lessons learned while serving as Wentz’s understudy have been instrumental in Stick’s current success.

“It was huge for me as a young player just getting to watch someone who obviously was super talented, but worked really hard,” the Creighton Prep product stated. “That was the big thing for me — he taught me how to prepare.”

Stick followed up his debut campaign with a full season at the helm of the Bison offense in 2016. As a sophomore, he posted 26 total touchdowns and just 9 interceptions while adding over 3,000 yards of offense. The Herd appeared to be marching to their sixth consecutive national championship, but a loss to James Madison in the semifinals brought their consecutive title streak to an end.

Fast forward to 2018 and Easton Stick is a three-time national champion and quite possibly the smartest quarterback at the collegiate level.

What distinguishes Stick from nearly every other quarterback in the nation is the Bison’s offensive scheme. NDSU’s pro-style offense is mentally demanding on its passers, but Stick, a Master’s student and summa cum laude Bachelor’s recipient, is up for the task.

“We play in a really good system that allows the quarterback to have a ton of freedom at the line of scrimmage. Being able to call two plays in the huddle and getting in and out of plays at the line, I think that’s important and something I take a lot of pride in,” Stick explained. “On Saturday, they can put a lot on my plate if need be. Being able to recognize what defenses are trying to do, what they’re taking away and being able to get us into a good play (is crucial).”

It’s no secret that the Bison’s offense is based heavily on the ground game. Still, Stick is a standout player. In 2016, he ranked nineteenth in the FCS in passing efficiency. The following season, he rocketed up to third on the list with a mark of 169.5 — ahead of the likes of Chris Streveler, Jeremiah Briscoe, Kyle Lauletta and Bryan Schor, all of whom competed for jobs at the professional level.

“Whether it’s throwing, running or handing it off 50 times, whatever is required of me in the offense as a whole, that’s what I’m behind,” Stick remarked.

Of course, he’d love an opportunity to showcase his arm, but with a deep backfield, NDSU leans on their running backs. “You don’t need (to be a high-volume passer) when you have guys like Bruce (Anderson), Lance (Dunn), Ty (Brooks) and Adam Cofield,” he said. “Every quarterback would love to throw it 50 or 60 times, but I really love winning football games. We’ve been fortunate to do a lot of that.”

Despite losing his top three targets from a season ago, Stick has leaned on mainstays Dallas Freeman and Darrius Shepherd in the early going. “Obviously, we’ve got an experienced group of running backs that can make plays in a bunch of different ways and good guys outside that are continuing to grow,” Stick said.

As the quarterback who filled his shoes, it’s nearly impossible to tell the Easton Stick story without mentioning Wentz. While Wentz was the size of the linebackers attempting to tackle him, Stick is smaller, making him more nimble and elusive as a runner. Additionally, in one less game than Wentz, the 6-foot-2-inch, 221-pound Stick has tossed over 1,000 more yards and 16 more touchdowns than the current Philadelphia Eagles’ starter.

Stick showcased some of that elusiveness in the Bison’s recent 38-7 win against North Alabama. On third down in the second quarter, Stick slipped out of the pocket, stepped around would-be pass rushers and looked down field. The quarterback arced a 54-yard pass into the hands of Freeman. The following play, he hit Shepherd for an 18-yard score.

The link-up with Freeman was reminiscent of the 50-yard touchdown Stick unfurled in last year’s national championship game. On the other end of that reception was Shepherd, whom Stick hit in stride with an inch-perfect ball.

The throw that ultimately sank JMU that afternoon served as a long-awaited vindication of Stick’s merits. The championship was two years in the making, and Stick earned the Most Outstanding Player award for his performance.

“I feel like I’m a pretty accurate thrower. Not only to throw it to the right spot, but when you do, put it in a place where a guy can make a play,” he commented.

His stats will never be gaudy like Briscoe’s or Streveler’s, but the senior’s play demands full attention. It’s part of the mysticism around Stick’s abilities — it’s impossible to quantify and equally as challenging for his contemporaries to duplicate.

The next move for Stick is still up in the air. His stock continues to rise among analysts and scouts, and another strong season could push him into elite company in this year’s draft pool. In the eyes of quarterback guru Archie Manning, Stick may already be there. The iconic football father invited Stick to his Manning Passing Academy over the summer.

With that being said, there are plenty of Saturdays between now and the NFL Draft, where Stick could very well hear his name called. Game day is still the senior’s top focus at the moment. “I’m worried about what we’re going to do on Saturday. There’s enough to worry about there,” he said. “We’ll handle that if we have to.”

Even if professional aspirations don’t pan out, Stick still plans to be involved on the gridiron. “I could see myself staying involved in football for a really long time,” he explained. “Hopefully, it’s in a competitive setting and helping other people improve and get better. That’s what this program is about, and those are things I try to stand for.”

Stick’s legacy at NDSU can be dissected from countless angles, but he wants to be remembered as a man and not just numbers and accolades. “As a football player, hopefully it’s as a good teammate and a competitor. Personally, (I want to be) someone who cares about other people and works really hard,” he stated.

Regardless of where Easton Stick’s career goes, one thing is certain: don’t blink, or you just might miss something unforgettable.

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