Bison still seasoned, veteran team
FARGO — The constant FCS story with North Dakota State in the offseason was the loss of 23 seniors from a team that won three straight national titles. In essence, it became 23 reasons why the Bison will have a tough time making it four straight.
The story certainly carries merit — one player was drafted in the third round, four made it to NFL camps, two had NFL tryouts and one is playing in the CFL, while another signed with a CFL team. The exodus of talent is obvious.
Moreover, what is harder to measure is that valuable intangible with those 23 seniors — leadership. When NDSU walked to midfield for the pre-game coin flip, it did so with Grant Olson, Billy Turner, Marcus Williams, Cole Jirik and Ryan Smith. That march didn’t include quarterback Brock Jensen, fullback Andrew Grothmann, running back Sam Ojuri or defensive tackles Ryan Drevlow and Leevon Perry.
That team had more captain candidates than it knew what to do with.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean when the Bison report to fall camp today, they will have 90 players who are all followers. True, 23 seniors may have departed, but 18 return and of those 18, it appears 13 will probably start.
That’s the same number of senior starters NDSU had when it took the field for the national title game in January against Towson (Md.) University.
This is still a veteran team.
“Everyone thinks we’re going to be down this year,” said safety Christian Dudzik.
Dudzik is one of those 13 seniors who will be on the field for the opening snap Aug. 30 at Iowa State. He’s also part of a host of players who have been around so long that built-in leadership is part of their resume.
“I think a lot of us in this class that are going to be seniors had to grow up pretty fast playing right away,” said safety Colten Heagle. “We were thrown into the fire, so I don’t think this will be a huge transition. Obviously, we had a great group of leaders the last couple of years, and I don’t think that will change with this group.”
And, perhaps more important, head coach Chris Klieman says he doesn’t expect a void in team leadership, either.
“We have a tremendous amount of leaders back that have been leaders for the last few years,” he said. “They’re the ones that I know probably feel a little more pressure, probably more so than the coaches do, to think we are seniors and we have to keep this thing going.”
Heagle shared the story of his high school days at Kimberly High School in Appleton, Wis. He was one of two juniors who were regulars on a state championship team, so expectations were low when they were seniors.
The school reached the state title game again.
“So I compare our situation to that,” Heagle said. “We’re working hard, we have a lot of young guys with talent and they just need to get into the playbook and learn the plays. There may be some growing pains along the way, some adversity to handle, but I’m excited to start.”
Heagle played as a true freshman, but a knee injury sidelined him in 2012 at Colorado State and he was granted a medical hardship. He spent the rest of that season and the offseason like a student coach, so showing the ropes to younger players is nothing new.
Klieman said Dudzik has picked up his ability to lead younger players. Top priority, Dudzik said, is to lead by example.
“The biggest thing is bringing the energy every day and reminding guys of the goal and what we want to do this year,” he said. “It’s really as simple as that.”
Another sign the older players are most likely being heard: So far, it’s been a quiet offseason in terms of anybody getting into trouble. Klieman said the coaches preach to players that they have to give up something to gain something, and he said nobody is better at stressing that than strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer.
“You can’t go out and party every night and go to the lakes every weekend,” Klieman said. “I think we’ve had a productive summer.”
Ditto, said Heagle, who said players sometimes make mistakes, but the key is to learn from them.
There was no shortage of captains the past few years to learn from, either. It’s almost baton-like, where the importance of it being passed on never takes a year off, the players said.
That doesn’t mean senior leadership is the same every year. The faces and personalities change.
“Every group is different, every class is different,” Dudzik said. “Colten is different than Grant was. Kyle Emanuel is different than Brock. But everyone knows what we want to do.”