There weren’t too many question marks entering the 2017 North Dakota State football season. Offense, defense and special teams all had a majority of players returning with starting experience.
The one position group with the most inexperience was the offensive line. But even then, the question marks weren’t big ones. The Bison routinely have a top unit in the FCS, opening holes for great running back after great running back and keeping big-name quarterbacks upright.
The Bison lost three starters from last season. But the 2017 “Rams” appear to be pushing the pile forward again for NDSU.
The Bison offensive linemen aren’t ones to go online to see what other people are saying. But when they found out no one was named to any preseason all-conference teams, they took it upon themselves to show that was a mistake.
“I mean we don’t pay attention to it, but we heard that nobody was on there,” left tackle Colin Conner said. “It was kind of like a low blow, I guess. But now it’s time to prove them wrong. We’re one of the bigger teams in this conference, and we always have a target on our back. We want to gain that respect.”
Conner is one of two starters returning this season. He was slated to play both tackle and guard on the left side. But an injury to backup left tackle and promising up-and-comer Dillon Radunz has kept him at the tackle position, where he started all 14 games last season.
“I know I’m locked in at left tackle now, but it’s still unfortunate,” Conner said. “I know if Dillon was still here, it would make my game better being able to play two positions.”
The line had several new faces, not just starting but rotating in, during the nonconference slate. But being the No. 2 rushing team in the country after three games no doubt had them rolling into the MVFC schedule.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster knowing that we have three new guys,” Conner said. “It’s nice to know that we can still do what our offense wants to do.”
Two great traits for a lineman is durability and versatility. Austin Kuhnert has shown both ever since he started 11 games at left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2014. He then started 26 games in 2015 and 2016 at center. This season, Kuhnert is leading the surge at right guard.
“I feel very comfortable there,” he said. “It’s just like riding a bike. The first year, I played left side and now I’m on the right side and it’s been going smoothly for me.”
The passion Kuhnert has on the football field is easily noticeable. A fiery guy to begin with, especially when it comes time to play the game, he’s also had to become vocal as one of the leaders for the Rams.
“It’s changed a lot being one of the two guys with returning experience,” Kuhnert said. “You have to be able to physically show the young guys what to do and then also explain it in an in-depth way so they are able to handle it.”
He’s also tasked with keeping the tradition of NDSU being a physical team by getting the younger players into that mindset. It’s one thing to say you want to be a physical team. It’s another thing to play like it.
“I’ve seen a lot of passion,” Kuhnert said. “The younger guys want to play the game and want to be able to play better. They have shown they want to be able to play on Saturdays.”
Tanner Volson isn’t necessarily a young offensive lineman as a junior. But it’s his first season in a full-time starting role at center. He made two starts last season in huge overtime wins against Charleston Southern and Eastern Washington while Kuhnert sat out.
“I feel like that helped me a good amount,” Volson said. “I know what to expect going out in games. Those two starts have helped a lot.”
Volson said having Kuhnert next to him has been a big help as well. But he feels fully comfortable making the right calls and being vocal at the center of the line.
His path to the starting role wasn’t easy. Volson played 9-man football at Drake-Anamoose High School. The jump to Division I football was more like a leap.
“It took a little bit of time, being able to understand the game more and how to play,” Volson said. “Coming from a 9-man program, you don’t learn a lot of that stuff. So it did take a little bit of time. It’s all paying off now. I’d say it’s been worth it–the hard work and the dedication you put into it.”
There’s another Volson making his way into the rotation as well. Tanner’s younger brother, redshirt freshman Cordell Volson, is already impressing coaches at 6-foot-6, 299 pounds and having played in all three nonconference games.
“I do from time to time give him some advice on what to expect,” Tanner said. “It’s cool having your brother play with you. It’s a really cool experience for both of us.”