It’s nearly impossible to imagine that one of the best offensive linemen in the Missouri Valley Football Conference entered his collegiate career without a game of 11-man football under his belt. This, though, is exactly the story of North Dakota State center Tanner Volson.
Volson is a native of Balfour, North Dakota — a pin drop 45 minutes southeast of Minot with a population of 24. That’s precisely why Volson, who attended Drake-Anamoose High School, played nine-man football in his high school days. Nine-man football features three offensive linemen, two tight ends and two wide receivers on a standard-size field.
“You fight more for the outside in nine-man,” Volson explained. With two fewer players, football in rural North Dakota is nearly a different game from the ones played inside the Fargodome. Regardless, Volson represents yet another link in a seemingly endless pipeline of mauling offensive linemen on NDSU’s roster from the western half of the state.
“It was a big change, especially since I came from a nine-man school. It was a bigger change than most people have to go through,” the fifth-year senior stated. “It was a pretty smooth transition. There were some rough spots in there, but it went pretty well.”
To any other coach outside the Upper Plains, the Bison’s recruiting strategy for one of the team’s most critical units is unfathomable. Far flung from recruiting services and rankings lies a goldmine hidden in plain sight. It’s where maulers are made.
To Volson, whose brother Cordell is a sophomore tackle for the Herd, the explanation to this phenomenon is quite simple: it’s all about hard work and corn. “A lot of us come from small towns and hard-working families and communities. That work ethic carries over to football,” Volson remarked. “A lot of us — usually bigger guys — come from corn-fed (backgrounds). It’s a lot of big guys who have a good work ethic.”
In 2016, Volson found his way into the first team, starting the first two games of the season with Austin Kuhnert serving an academic suspension. After Kuhnert’s return, Volson continued to serve as a rotational player, appearing in all of NDSU’s games that season.
“A lot of us come from small towns and hard-working families and communities. That work ethic carries over to football,”
-Tanner Volson, NDSU Football
As a junior the following year, Volson came into his own. With Kuhnert moving back to his original position at left guard, Volson became the starting center. Starting in all 14 games for the Bison, he twice earned Missouri Valley Offensive Lineman of the Week and ended the season on the All-MVFC Second Team.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 306-pound Volson finished behind Western Illinois’s Jacob Judd in 2017, but this season Volson was named to the conference’s preseason first team, alongside fellow NDSU lineman Zack Johnson.
When it comes to offensive line play, NDSU sets the standard at the FCS level. The Bison have always possessed great depth, which has allowed for offensive line coach Conor Riley to develop a cohesive unit year after year. “I feel like we’re coming together pretty well. A lot of us have played together for a long time now,” Volson said.
However, the success of the offensive line distills to individual effort, which inspires NDSU’s mantra. “You have to do your job. ‘Do your one-eleventh’ is what we say. That’s just how we do it,” Volson commented.
Of course, the Bison always boast high-level talent behind the offensive line, which helps Volson and his fellow linemen build confidence. Praise for “the Rams,” as NDSU’s O-line is known, is never in short supply among quarterback Easton Stick and the Bison’s running backs. The feelings are mutual, which has also contributed to NDSU’s success in running the football and protecting the quarterback.
Arriving at NDSU in 2014, both Volson and Stick have developed together, becoming two of the conference’s top players. “Since freshman year on, we’ve always been together. We’ve grown accustomed to each other,” Volson said. “We’ve gotten used to each other’s communication and keys. We’re on the same page, most of the time.”
NDSU’s pro-style offense is mentally demanding on Stick and by extension the five players tasked with keeping him on his feet. Fortunately, Stick is up to the challenge, which makes life even easier for Volson and the Rams. “It gives us confidence knowing that he’s back there and able to see the pressures and get us into different plays if we need to.”
Recent accolades aside, Volson still feels there is room for improvement. “I feel like I have a lot of work left to do,” he said. “Some of my run blocks need to be improved. On my pass blocking, I need to work on my hands.”
One of the most gratifying experiences for Tanner has been playing alongside his brother Cordell the past three years. “It is a nice feeling knowing he’s here too. It’s always a nice feeling having your brother on the same team, getting to play and having the same experiences,” Tanner said. “It’ll be a memory we can tell our grandkids one day.”
If corn is still on the menu, it’d be no shock to find those grandkids on a Bison roster in the future.