Photo By J. Alan Paul Photography
Wide receivers at North Dakota State are challenged every day to make an impact. Besides the obvious of getting open and catching the football, the receivers are also asked to be a key part in blocking for the run game. If you don’t block, you don’t play.
The position group is facing perhaps its biggest challenge this season. One of the main points of emphasis for new offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham is improving the passing attack. NDSU returns its top four pass catchers at wide receiver, led by Darrius Shepherd and RJ Urzendowski. But it’s finding that No. 3 and No. 4 receiver as a more consistent threat on the outside.
“We need to have a guy who is productive so people don’t end up doubling Shep or doubling RJ,” head coach Chris Klieman said before the start of fall camp. “We have some really good candidates there. We have guys that do things exceptionally well in one phase or the other, meaning maybe they run really good routes or maybe they block or understand the concepts, but we need somebody to be that third guy and fourth guy that are more the whole package and we’ll have great competition.”
Klieman pointed to Dimitri Williams and Dallas Freeman as ready to make a step up. University of Illinois transfer Desmond Cain is also looked at to make a spark.
“We have a lot of great guys in the room right now,” Shepherd said. “A lot of competition and a lot of depth. I think you’ll be surprised at how many guys step up this year.”
Even with a lot of options to get on the field, Urzendowski said they are looking for someone to become a consistent target game after game.
“The biggest thing is consistency out of a No. 3 guy,” the senior said. “Someone that can take pressure off of the guys ahead of them and just make consistent plays.”
New Offensive Wrinkles
Messingham brings 27 years of coaching experience to the NDSU staff. He has coached or called plays in the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences and was most recently the offensive coordinator at Montana State.
He has learned much of NDSU’s playbook, but brings his own flavor to the call sheet–most notably in the passing game.
“We just have a lot of new concepts,” Urzendowski said. “He brought a lot of new things that he’s run in the past that’s different from what we ran. We like those new concepts and he meshes it with some of the things that we’ve done well here for so many years.”
NDSU averaged 167.1 passing yards per game in 2016, which ranked 98th in the FCS, and averaged 13.7 yards per reception. While the Bison remain a run-first team, they look to improve on those numbers.
“He has added a lot of wrinkles that will make this team really explosive,” Shepherd said. “He brings some new looks that will help us have success against other teams this year. We’re really excited about it.”
Games Played – 47
Receptions – 117
Receiving Yards – 1,927
Touchdowns – 14
Blue Springs, Missouri
Games Played – 30
Receptions – 89
All-Purpose Yards – 1,614
Total Touchdowns – 12
Is there a chip on the shoulders of all the receivers when some people say the passing game needs the most improvement?
RJ Urzendowski (#16): “Yeah, definitely. It’s something that we worked on hard in the offseason. I think we’ve improved. We’re ready to show people that we can be a dominant force in the pass game as well as the run game.”
Darrius Shepherd (#20): “A little bit. But we know that NDSU football is a physical run game, and we have to do our part when called upon to make plays. That’s how it goes.”