McFeely: Safety Hendricks takings snaps at QB for Bison, which might not be a good sign
FARGO—Safety James Hendricks is getting some practice at quarterback for North Dakota State's football team, which might not be a good sign in the battle to be Easton Stick's backup.
One of the burning questions facing NDSU's top-rated and defending national champions is an odd, but potentially important, one: Who will be the Bison's backup quarterback?
(Sort of) three-year starter and Football Championship Subdivision title game most valuable player Stick is the No. 1 and a candidate for the Walter Payton Award as the best player in the division.
After that, redshirt freshmen Holden Hotchkiss and Noah Sanders are competing for the backup job in fall camp. True freshman Trey Lance, believed to be the quarterback of the future, was expected to redshirt this year.
But in a radio interview on the NDSU's in-house station, Bison 1660, a midday host asked defensive backs coach Joe Klanderman how the junior Hendricks handles all his roles on the team, including "potentially getting quarterback reps."
Klanderman confirmed Hendricks is practicing some at quarterback, but most of his time is spent at safety.
"We've given him a number of snaps at that (QB) position throughout fall just to keep him somewhat fresh," Klanderman said.
Bison quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg said Hendricks' days at QB might not be done, even though the player nicknamed "Jimmy Football" for his versatility is in the mix to be a starting safety.
"James Hendricks has taken some reps off and on. Took some in the spring at QB. He hasn't taken a bunch this fall primarily because want to get reps for the three young guys, but James will always be in the mix," Hedberg said. "He's a quarterback at heart and I think we'll see where it goes with him."
Hendricks committed to NDSU in 2015 as a quarterback from Laporte, Minn., and Bemidji High School after decommitting from NCAA Division II Minnesota-Duluth. He redshirted that fall and was the third-string quarterback behind Stick and Cole Davis in 2016. Last season, Hendricks switched to safety, and also played linebacker and special teams. He maintained his role as emergency quarterback behind Stick, Davis and Henry Van Dellen—actually getting snaps in an early-season blowout win over Robert Morris after Davis injured his shoulder.
Because Davis injured his shoulder and missed much of the season and Van Dellen was dismissed from the team, Hendricks again practiced at quarterback as the backup.
But at his pre-fall camp press conference in early August, Bison head coach Chris Klieman said only Hotchkiss and Sanders took reps in spring practice since Stick was out with an elbow issue. He didn't mention Hendricks getting any time at quarterback.
"I'm really impressed with both Holden and Noah. They took every rep in the spring and we had double reps so they are so much more confident and comfortable about what they are doing," Klieman said.
Klieman said he would probably wait until the week of the season opener, a home game against Cal Poly on Saturday, Sept. 1, to name a backup. He reiterated that this past week.
"Also, Trey Lance is a really good athlete we're excited about. It's just that he's learning the playbook for the first time," Klieman said.
Time to play conspiracy theorist (and to be clear, that's all this is ... speculation):
But ... if Bison coaches were completely confident in Hotchkiss or Sanders being ready to come into a game if Stick got hurt, why would they have Hendricks taking practice time at quarterback? On the preseason depth chart released the same day as Klieman's press conference, Hendricks was listed as a potential starter at free safety with Jaylaan Wimbush. It seems odd a starting safety would be taking quarterback reps.
One could surmise that maybe NDSU doesn't believe Hotchkiss or Sanders are ready to be the backup, at least in a close or important game, and so they are keeping Hendricks' toe in the water at QB just in case they need him in an emergency situation.
That would not be a good sign for the Bison. NDSU's chances of repeating as national champions would likely disappear if Stick were to sustain a season-ending injury, but if he was forced to miss a game or two or three they'd need a bridge QB until he was able to return and make a playoff run. Is this a sign the temporary QB could be Hendricks and not one of their redshirt freshmen?
There's also the possibility Lance could get some work in early in the season for experience and not lose his redshirt if he's not needed later. That's because of a new NCAA rule that allows true freshman to play in up to four games and not lose a season of eligibility. So the possibility exists that Lance could play in all three non-conference games and one conference game to gain experience and perhaps be ready as the backup (even if he's not listed as such) if Stick were to go down.
All scary scenarios for a team used to having a home-run backup QB almost every year since 2012. That was the year Brock Jensen was a junior and the redshirt freshman backup was named Carson Wentz. The roles remained the same in 2013 as Jensen led the Bison to a third straight national title and Wentz was second-string. When Wentz took the starting job in 2014 and 2015, Stick was a redshirt freshman in Wentz's senior year.
That proved to be vitally important because Wentz, who eventually was picked No. 2 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, missed eight games with a wrist injury. Stick filled in and went 8-0 as a starter, winning three playoff games to get NDSU to the national title game, where Wentz returned.
The backup position was iffy last year once Davis got hurt against Robert Morris early in the season. The fifth-year senior was unavailable to play most of the rest of the year—and it's not believed he could've played even in the national title game even though he suited up.
We will find out Monday or Tuesday who the Bison backup QB will be, and we'll possibly find out Sept. 1 against Cal Poly and almost assuredly Sept. 15 against North Alabama who NDSU coaches want to get game reps.
Bottom line: This expected season of greatness for NDSU changes dramatically if Stick suffers a serious injury.