It's no mystery that key contributors have left the Bison program over the last four championship seasons. I'm not just referring to stars like Marcus Williams and Kyle Emanuel who you can watch on Sunday but important depth guys have graduated as well. I took a look at the search for a third receiver after the Montana game, and it looks like the search just might be over.
With the score tied in the early second quarter and the Fargodome crowd thirsting for a blowout, North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz fired an NFL-level rocket down the seam to redshirt freshman Darrius Shepherd. The crowd exploded and all 10 of Shepherd's Bison teammates joined in on the celebration, but Darrius Shepherd was just getting started.
The impressive part of Shepherd's day wasn't the final stat line. The impressive part was how electric he was with the football in his hands. With the exception of the aforementioned touchdown catch, the rest of Shepherd's 141 yards came after he got the ball in his hands. Shepherd has the kind of moves in the open field that remind Bison fans of Ryan Smith, but he's 4 inches taller than Smith. He's a unique weapon for Wentz and the Bison offense.
It was clear from the start of the game that the coaching staff was committed to getting Shepherd the ball. The first two plays were designed bubble screens to Shepherd. After Eric Perkins fumbled the first punt that NDSU received, Shepherd was tabbed as the man their too. The majority of the snaps that NDSU took in "11" personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) the three receivers on the field were Zach Vraa, RJ Urzendowski and Saturday's breakout offensive player, Darrius Shepherd.
Shepherd's performance wasn't all positive. Shepherd did drop a 3rd quarter punt that led directly to North Dakota's only touchdown of the game. Yes, the score was 34-3 at the time and North Dakota had shown no signs of being competitive but those mistakes can't be a part of the game against a better opponent. During the post-game press conference head coach Chris Klieman was noticeably irritated. Klieman announced that CJ Smith would be the punt returner going forward, but backed off that during his weekly press conference, intimating that Shepherd, Smith, and Perkins would continue to be used situationally.
Whether or not Shepherd is the primary punt returner is interesting, but not ultimately that important. If the Bison have found their third receiver and he is as good as Shepherd looked on Saturday, the offense is without a weakness. With a QB who will play on Sunday, a stable of capable backs, the best OL in the country and a diverse group of receivers and tight ends this is the strongest offensive unit of the Division I era. If the defense is as good as it looked against North Dakota, Bison fans should keep their playoff Saturdays open.