Photo By Hillary Ehlen
The North Dakota State offensive line had gaps to fill heading into the 2019 campaign. They lost their coach Conor Riley, who departed for the same position at Kansas State with Chris Klieman. Senior leaders Tanner Volson, Luke Bacon and Colin Conner all graduated following the 2018 season as well.
Yet, despite the spots that needed to be filled before the season, head coach Matt Entz called the “rams” the deepest position group on the 2019 roster. Thanks, in part, to veteran linemen Zack Johnson and Dillon Radunz. Junior Cordell Volson had also seen time in 2018, but Johnson and Radunz were the two starters returning from last season.
The individual pieces were there for the Bison offensive line, but the group needed a leader. Someone to glue all of those pieces together and create a dominate chain to protect the NDSU offense.
Enter AJ Blazek, a seasoned offensive line coach who has experience at each level of collegiate football. Blazek — who joined NDSU’s staff in January 2019 as the offensive line coach — has coached in Division II, the Big Ten and even the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Goal number one for Blazek? Gain the rams trust.
“My biggest thing was getting their trust. On the surface or in an article or reading the paper, people see that I was in the Big Ten and that means I know what I’m doing. I don’t think that’s always the case. It’s kind of like recruiting because there are five-star kids that can play a lick, there are five-star coaches who can’t coach a lick,” he said. “I wanted them to know I’m out for their best interest and help them individually get better as a football player, but I also cared about them as a person. I wanted to know about their families. An 18 to 22-year-old is still a lot of what they grew up with. I really wanted them to know I had their back.”
Both Johnson and Radunz were pleasantly surprised with how well Blazek fit into the team right away. “He’s just so upbeat. Coach Entz talked about him highly and we kind of knew coming into it that he was going to be a go-getter and wanted to get down to work. He was so excited to get on the field and practice right away,” Johnson said of Blazek.
Radunz says there was a phase of transition, but Blazek blended in quickly. “He’s blended right in. We got used to him with spring ball, you’re kind of getting your feet wet with the new coach. There was a ‘getting to know you’ phase with him and his schemes and the way he coaches,” Radunz said. “All summer, we got to know him as a person, he goes to the church I go to and now through fall camp, we’ve been able to glue it all together.”
Goal number two for Blazek? Understand the Bison way and the tradition behind the storied football program.
“As a coach, you wear a lot of hats. Your players are your number one concern, at the college level the community, the fanbase, the athletic department because everything is built around fundraising and you’re building for the future and being in a community,” Blazek said. “With that, comes the alumni base too. From my end, I grew up a coaches kid and I saw that and learned that you better embrace what has gotten a place to where it is now, good or bad. That is what’s fun for me personally is getting to help coach Entz and his once a Bison program for all of our players when they’re done playing.”
Radunz says Blazek has embraced the family atmosphere Bison football has adopted. It’s Blazek’s indefinable qualities that show a true commitment to the Bison way. “He’s very personable and very into the whole family mentality. He brings his family around, his dad was around all of fall camp and it was fun to hang around him so he knows that aspect of Bison Pride,” Radunz said. “Also, the hard work part, he just grinds every day, he has a whole new point system for games to help us pick up the running backs.”
Goal number three? Continuing the legacy of great offensive lines. While the season remains young, it seems as though the rams have picked up where they left off in 2018.
“As a new coach, it’d be easy to look at Zack and Dillon and say they’re really good players. They both want to be pushed and want to get better. I coach them hard every day and when other kids see them getting coached hard, they know I can get on them too. There is really no entitlement, but I think the fun part is that Cordell [Volson] will ask for help,” Blazek said. “Between those three, they’re very vocal about making improvements and being challenged. Karson [Schoening] has really bought into that philosophy too. He’s probably lost five or eight pounds, really leaned his body out. He’s the guy that makes all the calls and they really trust what he’s doing right now. Then you got Nash [Jensen] and Zach [Kubas] playing well and you’ll see some young guys in there too. The fun part is these older guys don’t want to come out, but they have to a little bit to save their bodies.”
Blazek was complimentary of Radunz’s growth as a leader over the course of the offseason. According to other coaches on the Bison staff, Radunz has opened up more and taken on a leadership role for multiple players.
“Dillon has the capabilities. He’s probably the naturally, football IQ, gifted as anybody I’ve ever coached. He sees stuff on-field during a play going by him and he knows everything that’s happening. So he’s really bright from that end,” Blazek said of Radunz. “In his personal life, he’s become a big leader in our room just in confidence for guys, he’s a faith leader for some of our players. You got Cordell [Volson] who’s kind of the vocal bell cow, you got Zack [Johnson] he is the workhorse and he’s going to make sure guys are working. I think Dillon glues a lot of that together.”
Radunz, a junior in 2019, concluded 2018 on the All-Missouri Valley Second Team and on HERO Sports Sophomore All-American team. Last year was Radunz’s first full season of competition after a torn ACL derailed his redshirt freshman season. While Blazek sees the growth in Blazek’s leadership ability, Radunz offers up a little more humility when discussing his growth.
“Z [Johnson] is the workhorse, Cordell is the voice and I fit in there somehow. Some of the guys look up to me, Cordell and I always tell each other that iron sharpens iron. He’ll push me and I’ll push him harder,” he said. “Being able to show the other guys how to work hard in practice and watching the film. On the field, calming everyone down on the line and saying where all our blocks are going.”
That is not to say Radunz does not want to improve as the season moves along. As one of the key veterans protecting quarterback Trey Lance, Radunz wants to focus on the technical side of the game to improve. “You can always get better at footwork and hand placement on defenders. Also, reading defenses and reading where the blitz is coming from or even reading where the defensive line is going to shift,” he said.
In Johnson’s case, he is the lone senior on the offensive line this season. He just so happens to be one of the best in the country at his position. Johnson was a Missouri Valley First Teamer last year and was scattered about on various All-American teams in 2018. Because of that, he is eyeing a professional career come season’s end. Obviously, that is far in the distance with 2019’s opponents at the forefront of his psyche.
Both Blazek and Radunz deem Johnson the “workhorse” of the offensive line. Johnson says a few different sources instilled the quality of hard work in him. “It started off with my father, he always told me that the harder I work, the more things will pay off,” he said. “When it comes down to it, the guys that came before me, the traditions that were set. They told me to just keep working and don’t quit.”
Johnson also has things he would like to work on as the season progresses. Oddly enough, Johnson feels he can be more physical at the line of scrimmage, a notion that may truly puzzle even the biggest Bison fan. “Personally, it’s bending and being more physical. There are a lot of things you can get better at, but as an offensive line, we always talk about how physical and how fast we can play,” he said. “Making a decision on the line is very important and how fast you can do that is extremely important.”
Having experience in the Big Ten (Iowa and Rutgers) and the Missouri Valley (Western Illinois), Blazek sees similarities in the two conferences.
“I think the Valley is the Big Ten of FCS. What you hang your hat on in the Big Ten is you’re going to line up and we’re going to pound you,” he said. “In the Missouri Valley, it’s the same thing. It is a physical, week in, week out mash fest. As an o-line coach, what better place to coach, right?”
Indeed, that is what you want, coach Blazek.
The Bison offensive line has often been illustrated as a chain. If one link breaks, the Bison offense would be decimated. However, that has never occurred, which is remarkable in its own right. In an offseason of transition, both in staff and roster, the NDSU offensive line has continued to be as dominant as ever in 2019. That is a true testament to the rams commitment to excellence on the gridiron.