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Bison open spring football practice

FNS Photo by David Samson North Dakota State’s Colton Heagle returns an interception for a 35-yard touchdown against Indiana State on Oct. 26 in Terre Haute, Ind.

FARGO — The horn signifying the start of the first practice drill will blow at 10:20 this morning, and for the first time since he’s been a football coach at North Dakota State, Chris Klieman will not be scurrying to a spot on the football field. He has the entire shebang to be concerned about now.

That’s the job of head coach, and the first-year head man said this week that will be his biggest immediate challenge.

“To understand I’m not the assistant anymore,” he said. “And to let the coaches coach and that’s what I plan on doing.”

The plan for the first of 15 spring football practices begins today for a team that for the first time in at least a couple of years has more questions than answers. The Bison lost 24 seniors from last year’s team that won a third consecutive FCS national title, but it’s not as if everybody is starting over.

Back are 10 starters, and if all of the lettermen are taken into account, NDSU will have 20 position players who have either started at least one game or played extensively. That doesn’t include punter Ben LeCompte and kicker Adam Keller.

But because of the players lost and most of the coaching staff that departed to the University of Wyoming, Klieman in a sense believes his team will not have the expectations of previous years. He said the coaches on a daily basis have been looking for signs of players being content with three straight titles, but have yet to see any.

“I think it’s something you can’t hide from,” he said. “You’ve got to bring it up. You have to talk about it. But in the same respect, I think we’ll fly a little bit more under the radar then we have the last two years because there’s been so much of, ‘They lost this, they lost this, and they lost this.’”

It got to the point where safety Colten Heagle asked Klieman a question the other day: “He said, ‘Nobody has said what we have back, have they coach?’” Klieman said.

What do they have back? On defense, they have the three starting linebackers that made the playoff run (Travis Beck, Carlton Littlejohn and Esley Thorton); three in the secondary (Heagle, Christian Dudzik and C.J. Smith); defensive end Kyle Emanuel; offensive linemen Joe Haeg and Zack Johnson, running back John Crockett, tight end Kevin Vaadeland, fullback Andrew Bonnet and receiver Zach Vraa.

In addition, receivers Trevor Gebhart and Nate Moody, cornerback Jordan Champion, offensive linemen Jack Plankers and Jesse Hinz, defensive end Mike Hardie and defensive tackle Brian Schaetz all played a lot.

“We lost a great group of seniors, an unbelievable group of seniors who played a ton of football for us,” Klieman said. “But we have a number of guys who have some experience.”

Nine players will not participate in spring ball because of injuries. They are Smith, Keller, Heagle, Littlejohn, Beck, Johnson, Moody, receiver DeSean Warren and tight end Luke Albers. All are expected back next fall.

Klieman becomes the 30th head coach in NDSU history. He spent the last three years as the Bison secondary coach and the last two as defensive coordinator. Asked how long the adjustment will take from assistant to head coach, and he said that has already been accomplished.

“They already know what to expect, and they expect a lot out of each other, so I don’t think that will be an issue,” he said. “I think our kids have adjusted, too.”

Practices will be closed to the public with the possible exception of a scrimmage or two. The annual Spring Game is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. April 26 at the Fargodome.