Photo by Hillary Ehlen
Feature photo: #13 Desmond Cain, #20 Darrius Shepherd and #83 Dallas Freeman
Led by a group of seniors, the Bison wide receiver group may prove vital to offensive success.
Contrary to popular belief, North Dakota State loves to throw the football. Sure, there may not be the eye-popping numbers you see at other schools or in the NFL. However, Bison wide receivers have proved to be some of the most important assets in the team’s offensive scheme.
Who was there to reel in the first touchdown in last season’s FCS National Championship? Darrius Shepherd.
Who was the player who seemed to make every amazing play imaginable in his career? RJ Urzendowski.
While Urzendoski graduated at the end of last season, Shepherd is still on the roster for his senior season. He is joined by senior wideouts Dallas Freeman, Desmond Cain and newly transformed receiver Eric Bachmeier. With a veteran group this large, coupled with some up and coming pass catchers, the Bison wide receivers seem to have promise heading into 2018. This comes in the face of some minor adversity after former wide receiver coach Atif Austin left for the NFL’s New England Patriots.
NDSU has since brought in Jason Ray over the course of the summer. Though he was not a part of spring practice, the senior leaders have taken to Ray’s coaching style. “It’s definitely a change especially since he came in during the summer and not the spring,” Darrius Shepherd said. “It’s fun getting to know him and hearing his coaching points.”
Shepherd, who enters his senior season with 126 career receptions, is the pulse behind the group. The advantage he holds is playing alongside his fellow seniors for the past four seasons, something that is relatively rare in college football. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, NDSU’s success running the ball has been a primary storyline. Shepherd and the receivers take it in stride and have carved out their role on the team.
“It’s a team game. What we understand about NDSU football is that we need to take advantage of our opportunities when we get them,” he said. “As wide receivers, we’re going to catch, run and block and just do our best to help the team win.”
Shepherd certainly made the most of his opportunities in 2017, bringing in 41 passes for 559 yards and one touchdown. As mentioned earlier, his lone touchdown was a big one, as it broke the ice against James Madison in the FCS National Championship. It is likely that Shepherd’s numbers will increase due to the absence of Urzendowski, who commanded plenty of targets.
That is not to say Shepherd is alone. Dallas Freeman, a senior from St. Michael, Minnesota, is poised to be a heavy contributor in 2018. Freeman caught six balls for 89 yards and a touchdown last season. Factor him in with Illinois transfer Desmond Cain and you have a fairly busy wide receiver depth chart. Not to mention Eric Bachmeier, Christian Watson and redshirt freshman Andy Voyen, who are all expected to see an increased workload this season.
A busy depth chart would normally lead to a multitude of personalities, especially at wide receiver. For Shepherd, the clear leader of the position, it only makes his job easier. The number of veterans around him helps as well. “It’s a good role just to keep pushing your guys every day and motivate them,” he said. “But everyone we have is talented and it’s been fun playing alongside them.”
Despite being known as a running team, the Bison passed for 29 touchdowns and 176 yards per game in 2017. While that may not wow the casual fan, it is enough to get the job done.
Even so, the Bison wideouts know their opportunities when they see them and have historically capitalized every single time. Expect to see the same or perhaps an even greater amount of execution in 2018. “We attack each and every day and try to improve so we can win every Saturday,” Shepherd said.
2017 Bison Passing Game
Passing Yards Per Game: 176.7
Total Passing Yards: 2,650
Passing Touchdowns: 29
Passing Yards Per Attempt: 8.9
Passes Intercepted: 8