It began with a simple question: How do you replace 2,500 total yards of offense from one guy last year?
Short answer: you don’t.
Long answer: You take a room of guys that are committed to the process at NDSU, integrate them into the offensive philosophy and lean on them to carry the weight of one of the most glorified positions in football.
Offensive coordinator Tim Polasek says his running backs have started calling themselves “The Machines.”
“It’s really cool thing right now, going to that meeting room and see a group of guys that are united,” Polasek said after the Weber State game. “They’re supporting one another. They’re sharing in success. I think it’s cool. Chase (Morlock) comes in as player of the week, ‘Hey guys, who wants to share this candy bar with me?’”
Whether they’re sharing candy bars or snaps on Saturday, King Frazier, Chase Morlock and Lance Dunn are defining the “next man up” attitude every play.
Nobody has made a bigger sacrifice than Frazier, who spent last season getting the majority of the carries behind John Crockett. His selfless attitude is what Polasek has been impressed with most.
“It would be really easy for King to come in here and be a little upset two weeks in,” Polasek said. “‘Oh, jeez. I’m not getting the ball 20 times a game like John was.’ Well, that’s nobody in our group right now, and he’s done a good job of being a leader and rallying the group and believing, ‘Hey, guys, whatever it takes to win.’”
No running back on the team runs NDSU’s signature A-gap power better than Frazier. With a running style that’s a mixture of downhill speed and physical power, Frazier has molded himself into a prototypical Bison running back.
“I really don’t view it as following in John Crockett’s footsteps,” Frazier said before the season. “I view it as me being myself and doing what I gotta do to help get this team back to where we need to be and really, that’s the main goal and the main mission.”
As Frazier fills the traditional running back role, his fellow junior Morlock has found his role evolving more and more every game.
We’ve seen Morlock line up as both the running back and fullback in NDSU’s I-formation, but he’s also been trotted out as a wide receiver, slot receiver and tight end. His position has grown into what Polasek calls a “super back.”
It started this offseason when the NDSU coaches performed a four-game case study on themselves. The offensive coaches dissected the defense as if they were preparing to play them as an upcoming opponent and the defense did the same. What stood out for NDSU’s defense is they had trouble identifying exactly what position Morlock played. Do they treat him as a running back, fullback or tight end?
Identifying personnel is an important step for defenses trying to shuffle players in and out of the game and what scheme and formation they want to line up in before the snap. Once Polasek figures out what opponents are identifying Morlock as, he can call plays to put him in advantageous matchups, whether it’s against a linebacker or safety.
“We’re trying to manipulate the situation by playing him in multiple spots so they have to call him something,” Polasek said. Both Montana and Weber State had difficulty defining what Morlock was and with the array of formations NDSU threw at them, it led to favorable matchups, which ultimately led to easy touchdowns for Morlock.
“How they fit a certain play can lead me to think that a certain pass or play action can be pretty good, and then we want to get Chase in a spot where now you’re getting an explosive guy that’s catching it,” Polasek said. And it’s worked. Morlock was the leading receiver through two games with 163 yards and three touchdowns.
Providing a change of pace out of the backfield has been highly touted redshirt freshman Dunn. After an explosive Spring Game and hearing coaches, media and fans rave about his ability, Dunn has been given his share of touches during nonconference play.
Polasek said he sees his progression following in the same footsteps as DJ McNorton, a Bison running back that played from 2008-2011.
“(I’m) Super excited about Lance’s future,” Polasek said. “Lance is a guy that there’s an element of power, there’s an element of speed that maybe the combination of those two things he has better than the rest of the guys in the group.”
His number aren’t jumping off the stat sheet yet, but Polasek reassured that once he adapts to the speed of Division I football, he’ll be one of the most talented backs at NDSU.
The same can be said for true freshman Bruce Anderson, whose kick-return skills were too valuable to leave him off the field this season. Throw in the versatility of senior Darius Anderson and the potential of the 6-foot, one-inch freshman Demaris Purifoy, Polasek’s excitement for this group is immeasurable.
“We have a rule that you can’t walk on the field,” Polasek said. “So they jog off every day and I’m sitting there watching the six guys I’ve got and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, we might not be the best group right now, but we sure are the best looking group that has ever been at NDSU.’”
“The Machines” have earned a high endorsement from their position coach and offensive coordinator. The next step is waiting to see who solidifies themselves as the horse or the number one guy who will potentially carry the ball 20+ times during a hard-fought Missouri Valley Conference game.
Polasek is ready to make the running back position a revolving door of talent and flexibility. Though, he did offer the challenge. And after spring practice, summer workouts, fall camp and the first few games, the featured back title is still up for grabs.
“I could see eight different leading rushers the rest of the way out,” Polasek said. “Or somebody really establishes themselves as the number one guy.”
The NDSU running back position has been a strength of the offense since the program’s inception. This year has been a seamless transition from one featured back to multi-talented runners.
Just when the conference thought they’d get a lull at the running back position, NDSU has continued its identity and has become the “Running Back U” of the FCS.