The first question I asked head coach Chris Klieman this season was after the Weber State game. I was curious about never having seen the safety group rotate. Tre Dempsey stayed on the field the whole time but linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker, cornerback Jalen Allison and safeties Robbie Grimsley and Chris Board waited on every play to see what personnel the offense was using. NDSU has used rotations on the defensive line to keep the big boys fresh for years, but the back seven largely remained the same.
"All that's based on personnel. So it's not necessarily one guy is playing because the other guy's not doing his job. It's just whatever personnel the offense comes out in, we have a different personnel grouping." said Klieman (in September).
It was a solid game plan in theory. Without a clear starter at the safety position opposite Tre Dempsey, North Dakota State looked to use the strengths (and hide the weaknesses) of sophomore Chris Board and true freshman Robbie Grimsely. Board is a physical specimen, and at the time was the biggest safety I'd ever seen at North Dakota State. The coaching staff wanted to use the 6'1" 220 pound cruise missile to control the run game. While Board possessed the side to play box safety, Grimsley has all the range in the world to cover the pass. The Bison ran into two issues with the safety rotation.
The first problem is they have been getting no-huddled to death all season. Youngstown State will be the fourth consecutive no huddle offense NDSU has faced. Montana also created a number of problems for the Bison with their hurry-up attack. It's not difficult to understand why it would be difficult to make defensive calls against a no huddle with two or three players waiting to see if they are or are not going to be substituted.
The second issue was Board. It is not that Board is an ineffective player, it's just that players are almost always "sized down" in this Bison defense. Players that are 6'1" and 220 pounds play linebacker for the Bison, sometimes even defensive end. For years the Bison have prioritized strength, speed and technique in their 4-3 defense over adhering to strict positional height and weight requirements.
Board was "just OK" in coverage as a safety. He also struggled crashing down to defend quarterbacks on read option looks. His coverage ability translates to well above average as a linebacker. With Grimsley improving weekly and the Bison coaching staff having Andrew Smith and Jaylaan Wimbush as depth, Board was moved to linebacker before the Southern Illinois game.
"We think he gives us a better opportunity. Better opportunity for Chris in the long run, as far as the spread game. With 10 personnel, 11 personnel he's more of a linebacker mentality, box mentality. It just fits his skill-set better." explained Klieman.
The answer to the safety problem became clear. Grimsley had to play. "We were playing Robbie maybe 25, 30, 35 snaps a game. He's a young man that probably should be playing closer to 50, 60 snaps." said Klieman. That has certainly been the case. Grimsley and Dempsey are the safeties on every play that isn't on the goal line.
The results on the field have been excellent. Even though as a true freshman Grimsley checks in about fifteen pounds lighter than you would want at strong safety (181 lbs), there have been no issues with run defense. Since the switch, the Bison have allowed fewer than 90 yards per game, and have the number one run defense in the Missouri Valley (top 10 in the nation). Grimsley has 15 tackles, 1.5 TFL and a pass breakup since taking a full time role. Grimsley has not allowed a reception over 20 yards when targeted during those three contests.
"He's done a really nice job. The game has started to come easier for Robbie, the game has slowed down for him some." said Klieman,
Grimsley's progression doesn't only show up in the stat sheet. The ability to use the same safeties on every play makes the no huddle offense much easier to defend. "Not only in our nickel package, but our base package has made our defense better because you're out there with the same four guys in the secondary that have the ability to communicate, develop chemistry and be on the same page. Not only that, but it's a stressful situation for Coach Entz and the defensive staff (to rotate). It's really helped Coach Entz to be able to say 'It doesn't matter what you come out in, I can make a call' and be in the right personnel" explained Klieman.
Sometimes people forget just how young these Bison are. Despite the annual national championship expectations, of the 22 preferred starters 9 are either sophomores or freshman. There are young contributors like Bruce Anderson, Jalen Allison and Darrius Shepherd that don't start as well. The Bison, and the defense specifically, were always going to be a better team in November than they were in August this season. The progression of Robbie Grimsley paralels that of this young Bison team. BisoNation has a lot to look forward to, both during this season, and in the future.