Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
It takes a special breed of competitor to withstand the rigors of playing Division I football. And inside the household of three NDSU football players, the competitive juices rarely cauterized. In the case of Easton Stick, RJ Urzendowski and Darrius Shepherd, the offensive alliance is paused when it comes to playing “NBA 2K,” the popular NBA video game. The sophomore starting quarterback has played with Urzendowski since high school and all bets are off when he claims to be the king of the house in 2K.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m the best player in the house,” boasts first-year starting quarterback. “You don’t need to ask them either. You can just take my word for it.”
The two sophomores and junior (Urzendowski) live with each other near NDSU’s campus and are about to embark on their first season together as the core of the Bison passing game. Luckily for fans, coaches and teammates, the three shared the field together last season while Easton spot-started eight games.
Much has been made of Stick’s undefeated record as a starter, the tremendous job he did guiding the Bison back for their chance at a fifth consecutive national championship, his uncanny ability to evade tacklers downfield, his moxie in front of cameras and his mental toughness to bring a team back in the fourth quarter like he did in the Ice Castle last season against Youngstown State. Bison Nation received a taste of what Stick was capable of in 11 games last season, but now they’re salivating to know how he’ll respond to being THE guy behind center and receiving the fans’ undivided attention.
“It’s a little bit different but I’m getting used to it,” Stick said with a blushed smile at NDSU’s media day after the third day of fall camp. He’d been interviewed by every reporter in the Fargodome that afternoon and admitted he’s caught himself repeating his answers to the same questions during the hour-long reporter free-for all. Everyone was seeking to answer one question: what should we expect from Stick this season?
“I know Easton is a perfectionist,” said head coach Chris Klieman weeks before the Bison returned to practice in August. “He’s continuing to evolve and grow as a quarterback and I thought the biggest growth this spring was the mastery of the playbook, his understanding of more and more of what he’s seeing of what the defense is giving him.”
After the championship game in Frisco where Stick threw two passes–one of which was intercepted–Stick watched the film from all eight games he started in last season. Quarterbacks coach Randy Hedberg went through the film again with him during spring camp, too.
“He’s a guy that wants to be perfect,” Hedberg said of his new quarterback project. “The biggest thing with Easton is that we can anticipate making those throws to the field, from the hash mark to the wide side of the field. Him getting the ball out of his hands quicker, being able to anticipate the throws and that’s the thing Carson (Wentz) was so good at. He could anticipate based on coverages, so that’s what we’re working on.”
Filling the shoes of the second pick in the NFL Draft is a tall order for a quarterback who turns 21 two days before the Bison play Iowa, their only FBS opponent of the season. But all the signs are starting to show the coaches that Stick is starting to become more and more like Wentz as practice goes along.
“I think Easton is a lot like Carson in that he’s a football junky,” Hedberg said. “Carson would always be texting Tim (Polasek) and I about ‘Hey, I think this will work.’ But it was on Thursday, usually, a little too late. But I think Easton will have some say in that too and do some of that.”
Hedberg also pointed out something as simple as gathering the huddle as an intangible Stick needs to master. In a day in age of no-huddle-look-to-the- sideline-for-the-play offenses, NDSU has stuck to its roots by calling plays through the quarterback on the field. That’s why gaining the trust of the other 10 guys in the huddle is at the forefront for Stick.
“He has all the intangibles. The arm, the speed and the mental side of things,” Shepherd, who has caught a pass in all 15 games he’s played for the Bison, said. “He’s really grown as a leader. I think that’s the big thing he wanted to work on, getting guys to fall behind him.”
Urzendowski concurred, saying he’s seen a more confident Stick this offseason, knowing it’s his high school teammate’s time to lead.
Stick has all the confidence in the world in his 2K ability. Even though his two biggest receiver targets and roommates might disagree that he’s the king of the house, they and the rest of the Bison know they’re in good hands when No. 12 leads them out of the Bison helmet in the Fargodome this season.