Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Zach Vraa and RJ Urzendowski aren’t putting up career numbers this season, but they are providing the Bison offense with something much more valuable. Their presence has helped the development of freshman quarterback Easton Stick and has allowed the offense to keep scoring at an elite rate.
The wide receiving group at NDSU is an interesting one to dissect. On one side, you have a sixth-year senior who appears to have the range of Mister Fantastic and plays the game with a smoothness as if opponents are moving in slow motion.
On the other side, you have a sophomore that played a role in two of the three biggest plays of the season last year when he was only 18 years old. For a freshman to step in under the lights of the Fargodome and produce at the Division I level just doesn’t happen. Lightening doesn’t strike twice, but it seems to have done just that with an addition of another freshman this season filling up his very own highlight reel.
The former, Zach Vraa, is going down in school history as the best wide receiver to take the field at NDSU. Statistically, you can glance at any category. His name is next to it in the record books. There isn’t much flash or breathtaking explosiveness anymore, he’s another level of playing the position. It’s his preciseness. The clean, crisp route running to complement the hands that are as soft as a foam pit. The one way to describe his play is the biggest compliment you can give a football player – the game looks too easy for him.
The latter, RJ Urzendowski, burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2014 and built his resume for big plays early and often. He already has the charisma and moxie of a sixth year senior at the age of 19. Yet, he’s as reliable as anybody when the ball is up for grabs. He entered the Bison program last year with astronomical high school stats and with more chemistry with the quarterback than anybody, which has undoubtedly helped ease the transition from back-up to starter for redshirt freshman quarterback Easton Stick.
The aforementioned freshman wide receiver, Darius Shepherd, has been the biggest offensive surprise for the Bison this season. Few players on the team came in with the pedigree of Shepherd. His father played at the University of Missouri and a grandfather that played in the NBA. The big-play gene has carried over to the grandson, which has helped him become a dangerous third receiver. Just ask Northern Iowa when Shepherd made two heroic touchdown grabs in the second half.
What’s misleading about these three is that the stats aren’t going to make you stop whatever you’re doing and drool over your keyboard. They’re good, but they’re not as inflated as some of the top-talent in the FCS.
Urzendowski leads the group with 40 grabs through 11 games and has collected 586 yards. Vraa, who lit up the single season record book during the 2013 season, is still under 500 yards this year.
Shepherd has battled a sore shoulder during his first campaign, but his 461 yards is good enough for second on the team and his 14.9 yards per reception proves his big-play ability.
“If you look around the landscape there are a lot more freshman playing in college football,” wide receivers coach Atif Austin said. “They’re coming out of high school a little more ready to play. But, I think more than anything, it’s the confidence level.”
There’s no shortage of confidence among the wide receivers at NDSU, and obviously, losing one of the top passers in the FCS in Carson Wentz has hurt the statistical production of players like Vraa and Urzendowski.
But it’s the clutch moments when the stars shine the most.
During Stick’s first start against Indiana State, the game was tied at 14 in the third quarter. Stick bootlegged to the right and was scrambling for his life. It was at that moment Urzendowski was able to shake free from his defender in the end zone, giving Stick a wide enough window to deliver the eventual game-winning touchdown pass to his old high school teammate.
The Omaha connection struck twice more the following week. Stick faked the read option, pulled up and lobbed a pass into the waiting hands of Urzendowski to give the Bison the lead. Later in the third quarter with the Bison up one, Stick delivered a strike to Urzendowski on a slant route. The sophomore turned upfield and took the ball 77 yards to the house.
Finally, back home against Western Illinois, Vraa made his most athletic catch of his career over Leatherneck defender Riggs Baxter. Vraa leaped for the Stick pass down the sideline, came back and plucked the ball just before it hit Baxter in the back of the head. The play set the tone for the rest of the game. Vraa turned it up field giving the Bison their first points during a 59-7 route. It was his only catch of the game.
Vraa and Urzendowski have caught 22 passes from Stick through five games, but they’ve made them matter, accounting for six touchdowns.
The injury to Wentz may have hurt the potential of the Vraa-Urzendowski duo, and slightly stunted the growth of Shepherd, but the role their playing now is more important.
It’s hard to imagine a better situation for Stick to come into with Vraa and Urzendowski as security blankets.
With playoffs looming, Vraa and Urzendowski will have to make their presence felt even more. And for two football players that have been through the wars, this won’t be anything new for the dynamic duo at receiver.