Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
College football is a talent business. Taking nothing away from coaching and player development, the team with the most talent wins more often than they lose. Much more often, in fact. Since 2011, North Dakota State has an astonishing 112–8 record. During this historic span, the Bison have won seven national championships and eight Missouri Valley Football Conference titles. Outsiders, and even some insiders describe it with words like “unbelievable.” It really isn’t. Unprecedented, absolutely. It’s a dynasty with few equals in college sports history, but it’s not unbelievable. The Bison have reaped the benefit of superior talent compared to the rest of their FCS brethren in the last decade, recruiting FBS-level, and in some cases, NFL-type talent.
That’s where it all starts. This superior talent is the result of consistent top flight recruiting classes. As of late August, there are nine former Bison on NFL rosters, including Carson Wentz, Bruce Anderson, Chris Board, Nick DeLuca, Joe Haeg, Darrius Shepherd, Easton Stick, Billy Turner and Tanner Volson. Another three, Ramon Humber, Kyle Emanuel and Marcus Williams played in the league last year with Humber winning a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. Another five, Brock Jensen, Ryan Smith, John Crockett, Tre Dempsey and Sam Ojuri, played in the Canadian Football League in recent years. With the exception of Humber, 16 of these former Bison played during the current NDSU dynasty starting in 2010. This says nothing of the bevy of all-American and all-MVFC players for the Bison in that same span.
Many Bison on this year’s roster were recruited by Power 5 FBS programs. Trey Lance, the redshirt freshman and newly announced starting quarterback, had an offer from perennial FBS Top 25 team Boise State. Saybein Clark had an offer from Big Ten staple, Iowa, Luke Weerts was offered by the Big 12’s Kansas State, and tight end Noah Gindorff received an offer from Minnesota. We could go on, but you get the point. The Bison get better talent then the rest of the FCS.
The old cliché, recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, holds serve. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s much-maligned head coach, draws the ire of “experts” in the media because a couple of years ago, he had a slumber party at a recruit’s house, and then went so far as to climb a tree at another’s. The audacity, right? That’s nothing. One of Harbaugh’s predecessors at Michigan, the iconic Bo Schembechler, who brought the term “Michigan Man” into the college athletics lexicon, once played dolls with a recruit’s sister on a visit. Harbaugh knows the story well because it was his house, with his sister. In March 2016, Harbaugh told ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” that he “remember[s] Bo talking with my younger sister, Joanie, and they were playing with a dollhouse in the corner of the living room,” on a recruiting trip.
Why do coaches go to such lengths in recruiting? The answer is simple. Today’s recruits win tomorrow’s championships. It’s a talent business, not quantum physics. The Bison have the most talented roster in the FCS this season, as they’ve enjoyed for the better part of the last decade. The most talented roster in the FCS bodes well for NDSU, as it has the better part of the last decade.
It gets old hearing experts say things like, “Nobody saw that coming.” Let me tell you what is coming. Lance is the next big thing at quarterback for NDSU. Not next year, not two years from now, or three years in the future. Right now. He is explosive, electric, throw in any other superlative of your choice. The highly touted, and superbly talented freshman, will lead the Bison to big things in 2019.
Bet on the team with the better players to win the game, especially when those players have a chip on their shoulder from hearing about how inexperienced they are. I don’t care so much that Lance is in his first year as the starting quarterback. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence started his first college game in week five last fall, and ultimately lead the Tigers to the College Football Playoff championship. The future is now.
Lance will be the better and more talented quarterback, with the better surrounding cast, in almost every game – if not every game – the Bison play this fall. Same goes for NDSU’s wide receivers. I get that the leading receiver coming back is tight end, team captain and local favorite, Ben Ellefson. The Hawley, Minn., product had 14 catches for 194 yards in 2018, with eight of those going for a touchdown. He’ll be a red zone and third-down weapon for Lance and offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl. But to hear it from the experts, the Bison will struggle to complete many passes because they’re young and inexperienced at wide receiver. Young? Sure. Inexperienced? Certainly. The word being omitted is talented. “We’re very talented in that room, top to bottom,” said Lance of his receiving corps. Sophomore tandem Phoenix Sproles and Christian Watson showed flashes their freshman seasons. Those flashes will turn into all out bursts this fall. Pound-for-pound, the Bison receivers’ room is as talented as it has ever been.
Yet, get ready for the cavalcade from the experts around late September uttering in astonishment the same clichéd, hackneyed phrase, “nobody saw this coming.” Who knew that Lance would be one of the most dynamic players in the conference, or that Sproles and Watson are playmakers. Maybe not the experts, but the Bison coaching staff knew. It’s why they were recruited to Fargo. I’m telling you right now – it’s coming. Backed by the always fierce Code Green defense, explosive athletes at the skill positions and one of the best offensive lines in the FCS, the Bison are primed for a Frisco run. Lance and NDSU will have a big, big year.
“Leadership, efficiency, and who would cause me the most problems as a quarterback if I were a coordinator trying to defend the Bison,” said head coach Matt Entz on why Lance was tapped the starter going into the opener at Target Field against Butler. Playmakers like Lance, Watson, Sproles and Clark have spent a full season under Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Performance Jim Kramer’s legendary tutelage. They’ve also spent the last two seasons sharpening their skills every day at practice and workouts against the likes of Jabril Cox, James Hendricks, Derrek Tuszka, Marquise Bridges, Josh Hayes, etc. With all respect to the opponents on NDSU’s schedule, it doesn’t get much harder than having to battle Code Green on a daily basis. Coupled with NDSU’s track record in recruiting and developing players, it’s a proven recipe for success.
Throw in this nugget. The Herd have 30 players on the roster entering their fourth or fifth season in the program. “Nothing is going to change day-to-day,” said Lance of NDSU’s approach with so many new names in key roles. “We’re going to keep working and trying to get better every day.” Lance is striking the right notes heading into one of the biggest positions in FCS football – NDSU starting quarterback. “I’m getting better every day, still. There’s no way that I’ve arrived.”
Sooner, rather than later, we’ll see the same things that caused Bison coaches to pop the figurative champagne corks when Lance and these other youngsters committed in December 2016 and 2017. And just remember, you heard it here first.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!