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NDSU football faces five questions heading into spring practice

FARGO -- North Dakota State started spring football practice on Wednesday, and here are the five biggest issues to address in the next 15 practices.The blind sideCarson Wentz may be getting the most attention this week when it comes to NDSU's Pro...

FARGO -- North Dakota State started spring football practice on Wednesday, and here are the five biggest issues to address in the next 15 practices.
The blind side
Carson Wentz may be getting the most attention this week when it comes to NDSU’s Pro Day and NFL draft status, but Joe Haeg is the next big thing when it comes to his pro potential. The left tackle was a rock in protecting Wentz from a backside pass rush, and replacing him will be Priority A. It appears Colin Connor, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound sophomore, will get the first shot. “I’m intrigued to see what Conner can do. He’s a really good athlete,” said head coach Chris Klieman. The other possibilities are moving starting right tackle Landon Lechler to left tackle or giving redshirt freshman Zack J. Johnson a starting chance. “Can young Zack Johnson be athletic enough and understand what we’re doing? Because he has great length,” Klieman said of the 6-foot-6, 297-pounder from Blaine, Minn. “It will be great competition, but we like the fact we have some guys competing there.
Maturity level
It’s another young team with 11 seniors, and of those 11, three are offensive linemen (Johnson, Lechler and Jack Plankers), three are linebackers (Pierre Gee-Tucker, MJ Stumpf and Nick DeLuca) and two are running backs (Chase Morlock and King Frazier). That leaves a few position groups that will need to find some underclassmen leadership, like the defensive backfield which has no seniors. Klieman, however, doesn’t seem to be immediately concerned about that, citing junior safety Tre Dempsey “a good of a leader that I’ve seen.” On offense, sophomore quarterback Easton Stick is in line to assume control of the huddle after starting eight games as a redshirt freshman, and receiver R.J. Urzendowski and center Austin Kuhnert are in their third year with regular roles. “We have some really good leaders in the underclassmen,” Klieman said. “But make no mistake, we have a good nucleus of seniors who have played a lot of snaps that will lead.”
Shutdown corner
In a sense, it’s the defensive answer to the blindside offensive lineman. The job belonged to CJ Smith the last couple of seasons and before that Marcus Williams, so the Bison have been blessed with a cornerback who was good enough to hold down an opposing team’s top receiver. With Smith gone, the heir apparent is Jalen Allison, a 6-foot, 179-pound sophomore who backed up seniors Smith and Jordan Champion last season. “We’re hoping he can make the quantum leap that CJ made from his freshman year to his sophomore year when he backed up Andre (Martin) and Marcus,” Klieman said. “For us, we need to have a shutdown guy. The big challenge for Jalen is to see how much his game has progressed.” Replacing Champion appears to be an open race between sophomore Jaylaan Wimbush (who was moved from safety), redshirt freshman Dom Davis and sophomore Dakota Reid.
Depth at linebacker
That was the worry during fall camp last year when the Bison defensive coaches said they didn’t really want to go through another season like 2014 when the linebackers hardly came off the field. Well, Gee-Tucker, DeLuca and Stumpf hardly came off the field last season, mainly because they are tough positions to learn in the Tampa 2 defense. Plus, the Bison used a lot of five defensive back looks against passing teams. The top candidate is sophomore Dan Marlette, who Klieman said will get a look at both a middle linebacker spot as well as an outside spot he has been playing. “We need to find out what Marlette can do,” Klieman said. Junior Matt Plank will be in his fourth year in the program in the middle. After that, redshirt freshmen Jake Brinkman and Aaron Mercadel will be in their first spring football.
The next walk-on star?
Usually it’s been a walk-on like Haeg, defensive tackle Brian Schaetz or last year in the form of defensive linemen Aaron Steidl and Caleb Butler - guys you figured wouldn’t see the field but did. The spring’s early candidate: sophomore receiver Dallas Freeman, whose best honor in high school at St. Michael-Albertville (Minn.) was all-conference. Marquise Bridges and Dimitri Williams were the star receiver attractions of last year’s recruiting class, but Freeman gained some notoriety on the scout team and recently made big gains in winter conditioning. Bridges redshirted, and Williams was hurt for a good chunk of his true freshman season. The thought is they’ll be in the mix, but NDSU has never been shy about playing a guy who proves himself on the field, and not so much on paper.

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