There is a unique thing about college football: teams always need to replace departing seniors. For North Dakota State next season, that means replacing the largest senior class in program history.
Twenty-four seniors in all will be leaving the program. The argument could be made that the number is 29 if you include head coach Chris Klieman and the four assistants leaving for Kansas State.
Once they get clear from their celebration hangover and stress over the icy roads, the question on all Bison fans’ minds is, what comes next?
The expectation is that nothing will change. That expectation will not be far off.
The promotion of Matt Entz from defensive coordinator to head coach proved athletic director Matt Larsen’s vision — continue the dynasty.
During the hiring process, Larsen said he was contacted by a bunch of former Bison players. “It was a consistent message. It wasn’t backing one candidate over another. It was reinforcing just how important Bison football is to them, upholding the tradition, history and culture that they helped build,” Larsen said.
“I don’t think you’ll see any big changes. NDSU has a recipe that has been successful and will continue to be successful into the future,” Entz said in the official statement of his promotion.
Entz has been the defensive coordinator since Klieman’s promotion from the position. In that time, the pair has consistently had one of the best defenses in the country.
“Being under Coach Entz, he’s had so much passion for the players and he’s so special,” graduating linebacker Levi Jordhiem said. “He was named head coach because Mr. Larsen saw what he can do, what he is capable of and what he is — he’s dead set on doing it. He’s going to keep this thing rolling.”
The defensive coaches will not see much change. Coming in to take over the linebackers coaching role is Grant Olsen. A member of the surprise Indiana State coaching staff, Olsen was a linebacker at NDSU between 2010 and 2014.
Olsen will have one of the key pieces of the returning defense. Current sophomore and rising junior Jabil Cox is one of the best defensive players in FCS and the foundation of the Bison defensive efforts.
The secondary returns both cornerbacks, as well as safety James Hendricks. The converted quarterback will quarterback the defense next year as a senior.
Up front, Derrek Tuszka is primed to pick up Greg Menard’s mantle at defensive end. The sophomore settled that with a sack on the final drive of the national championship game.
It will be the offensive side of the ball that sees the most change. Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, along with wide receiver coach Jason Ray and offensive line coach Conor Riley will follow Klieman to Manhattan, Kansas.
On the field, NDSU lose their top two running backs and wide receivers, a handful of linemen, a tight end and an all-important quarterback.
In all, 65.3 percent of the offense in terms of yards will be leaving the program.
Those that are leaving feel like nothing will change.
“There’s a great junior class full of leaders that led this year. And it’s going to be fun and exciting watching them and seeing them grow,” quarterback Easton Stick said.
Recent history agrees with the outgoing senior. When Messingham took over from Tim Polasek after the 2016 season, the on-field product didn’t change. In fact, the offense gained over 1,000 more yards in Messingham’s first year from Polasek’s final. Of course there are other variables, but that is still a large difference.
The style didn’t change, NDSU’s deep power run game is still king, but other wrinkles were added.
At time of writing, a new offensive coordinator has not been hired. A likely candidate is current tight end and fullbacks coach Tyler Roehl. Roehl has been in that position since 2014 and played for the Bison between 2004 and 2008. NDSU has made a habit of promoting from within in the past decade, and Roehl checks all the boxes.
From a player standpoint, there are plenty of pieces in place.
Running back Ty Brooks will be a senior next season and be the main option in the backfield. A pair of 100-yard outings as the third option this year lay a solid foundation.
Complementing the “most dynamic player in the FCS,” in the words of Klieman last year, will be Adam Cofield. Given mop-up duty, Cofield totaled 563 yards rushing yards on the season. A fully healthy Seth Wilson completes the trio in the backfield.
Phoenix Sproles and Christian Watson will be the receiving duo of the future, and each had productive years early in their careers.
The biggest question mark on the offense will be who will run the offense. A potential four horse race is set for spring camp. On the depth chart, Holden Hotchkiss backed up Stick on the depth chart. Freshman Trey Lance, who got a redshirt after only playing in just two games, looked like a Bison quarterback with his legs.
A wildcard enters in the form of Zeb Noland, a transfer from Iowa State. Holland threw for 722 yards in five games for the Cyclones last season.
On the outside looking in is Noah Sanders, who was third on the depth chart last season.
No matter who is handed the reigns, the expectation is the same.
“It’s pretty special. There’s some crazy expectations at this program, and we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Stick said.
The expectations are high, but the foundations of the program have been in place for a long time and are solid.
“That didn’t start in 2011. It started way back — we talk about it all the time — in the ’60s, and we had alumni, former players come out yesterday, and they talked about Bison pride and it’s crazy how that hasn’t changed at all,” Jordheim said after the national championship.
And leave it to Klieman, who leaves NDSU with a record of 112-8 in his eight years as an assistant and head coach, to quell any fears.
“Coaching football is one thing. Being a great role model, being a great mentor, being able to lead young men is more important than Xs and Os and he’s that. And I’m so happy for Matt (Entz). The program’s in great hands, guys,” Klieman said. “The culture is established. We kind of passed the torch from the seniors to the juniors just now in the locker room.”
The last chapter of Bison football raised the bar and won the dang day. The next chapter will continue to elevate the bar.