All things considered this has been a quiet season for the tight end group at North Dakota State. This could have been expected somewhat. Kevin Vaadeland was a 6th year senior a season ago, and accounted for 73% of the receiving yards for Bison tight ends a year ago. The Thundering Herd boasts a deep and diverse group at the position, but it's a complicated one to learn.
NDSU tight ends accumulated just 272 yards and six receiving touchdowns over the course of the 11 game 2015 season. That accounts for just 11% of Carson Wentz and Easton Stick's passing production. Offensive Coordinator Tim Polasek uses his tight ends in a variety of ways. The Bison rotate offensive personnel on almost every play.
If you pay attention to the Bison offense pre-snap, you'll see Stick and his offensive line stay on the field while anywhere from 3-5 other players substitute. Among those players is any number of tight ends. Because most of the tight ends and fullbacks cross-train with FB/TE coach Tyler Roehl, it's difficult for the defense to know what the Bison are planning to do on offense.
Jeff Illies lines up at fullback, tight end and wide receiver. Andrew Bonnet lines up at fullback and tight end. Connor Wentz can put his hand in the dirt on the end of the line or line up in the slot. Running back Chase Morlock lines up all over the place as well. This provides the Bison with offensive versatility.
For example, a skill group that consists of Wentz, Bonnett, Bruce Anderson, RJ Urzendowski and Zach Vraa could easily line up in a five wide set and effectively spread out a defense. That same exact group could just as easily motion into a traditional "I" formation with Bonnet lead blocking for Anderson while Wentz plays a traditional tight end. How do you have a defense on the field that can defend both? That's the million-dollar question.
Being versatile comes with a price. It's easy to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. It's understandable that a young player would take a long time to learn fullback, tight end, slot and wide receiver. Sophomores Jeff Illies and Connor Wentz are seeing upticks in their production as they become more comfortable in this late part of the season.
"Jeff's a young player, we're doing a lot of things with Jeff. He doesn't have the body size of an Andrew Bonnet, at the same time we're putting his hand in the dirt, putting him at fullback, putting him at wide receiver, that's a lot of stuff." explains Head Coach Chris Klieman. That comfort level has been evident over the last two games. The Lidgerwood, ND native compiled just four catches for 18 yards and a touchdown during the first nine games of the season.
Against Youngstown State Illies only had two catches, but they were both complex back-shoulder fade patterns that resulted in first downs. He also grabbed a 30-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter of the blowout victory over Missouri State. "Coach Polasek's spitting out a formation that's five sentences long and Jeff's gotta understand all that stuff. Andrew Bonnet gets it. Lucas Albers gets it because they're fifth year seniors. Jeff's a young guy and it's starting to click for him. The more confident and comfortable you are the better you play" said Klieman.
Connor Wentz, cousin of quarterback Carson Wentz, has contributed all season long, but mostly as a blocker and someone to draw coverage in the middle of the field. Wentz, like Illies was limited in what he produced as a receiver during the season. Through the first ten games, Wentz had one 15-yard reception from Carson in the game in Brookings against South Dakota State.
Wentz broke out in a big way against Missouri State, catching three passes for 49 yards and a touchdown, arguably the most productive game for a Bison tight end all season long. It wasn't the first time he'd beaten up on the Bears either. Wentz posed a mismatch for Missouri State as a redshirt freshman a season ago, grabbing two touchdowns in Springfield, MO.
North Dakota State is going to attempt to run the ball at almost a 2:1 rate. 60 plays, 40 runs and 20 passes seems to be roughly the formula that these Bison have used to win the last five games in a row. It's possible that it's going to be the formula they try to use to win a fifth consecutive national championship. With a ratio like that, no single pass catcher is going to put up gaudy numbers. With that said, improved production from the tight end group is welcome. Without a John Crockett to lean on the Bison have to utilize every weapon available to them to get back to Frisco.