Bison return 10 starters in hunt for 4th FCS title
FARGO, N.D. (AP) North Dakota State's march to a third straight Football Championship Subdivision title last season was methodical from the first day of fall camp, when coaches already had penciled in all 22 starters and special teams.
There's considerably more intrigue this year. The Bison are replacing a quarterback with the most wins in FCS history, four starters on the offensive line, three starters on the defensive line and, yes, a four-year starter at long snapper. Their head coach is gone, too.
Chris Klieman, the former defensive coordinator who took over for Craig Bohl, now at Wyoming, said his staff is curious to see how the newcomers will handle the spotlight, beginning with Saturday's game at Iowa State.
''Last year we knew how they were going to respond. We knew who the guys were that we're going to play.'' Klieman said. ''Some of the younger guys we had questions about leading into fall camp have really progressed well.''
Brian Schaetz, a junior in his first year as a starter on the defensive line, said the players don't care about depth charts or returning starters.
''We really don't pay attention to the outside world,'' Schaetz said. ''A lot of people say there's a different element this year, but I don't think there is.''
NDSU is turning to a homegrown product to replace quarterback Brock Jensen, a three-year starter who won an FCS-best 48 games and signed with the Miami Dolphins in May before being released.
Carson Wentz, a 6-foot-6, 231-pound junior from Bismarck, North Dakota, is a ''pretty grounded kid who's excited for his opportunity,'' Klieman said.
''We feel Carson is ready to go in this kind of environment, but time will tell,'' Klieman said. ''We know he's going to make some mistakes. Hopefully he learns from this experience (against Iowa State) and other non-conference games. We're excited about his potential.''
The Bison still boast some marquee players, particularly on defense where six starters return.
Hard-hitting strong safety Colton Heagle is a nominee for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in FCS. Three statistical leaders from 2013 also returned: linebacker Carlton Littlejohn (89 tackles), free safety Christian Dudzik (6 interceptions) and right end Kyle Emanuel (7.5 sacks).
Also returning are running back John Crockett, who ran for more than 1,300 yards last year despite splitting carries, and wide receiver Zach Vraa, who set a school record last season with 15 touchdown receptions.
The Bison have a 24-game winning streak on the line against the Cyclones, tied for the longest streak in school and FCS history.
The Bison won 24 straight games spanning three seasons in the 1960s. Both Penn (1992-95) and Montana (2001-02) had 24-game runs in FCS play.
Missouri Valley Football Conference associate commissioner Mike Kern said NDSU has the ''commitment, dedication and focus'' to pull off the first to win four FCS titles in a row.
''If any program and any group of student-athletes and their coaches can find a way to win four straight national titles, it's that bunch wearing green and gold in Fargo,'' Kern said.