Well that was a lot of fun. The Bison won their fifth consecutive national championship. It's extremely impressive, but perhaps more impressive is that they did it with such a young team. The Thundering Herd will return 8 starters in addition to Jalen Allison on defense. They will also return 7 starters on offense in addition to promising young quarterback Easton Stick. The Bison enter 2016 as the favorites to improve the "Drive for Five" into a "Six-Pack".
The Big Question Marks:
Quarterback: not really a question. It's Easton Stick's job. Stick is the most highly recruited quarterback to ever choose to play at North Dakota State. It showed. Stick went 8-0 as a starter and gave Carson Wentz one last chance to put on the Green and Gold. Bison fans should feel good about both Stick and his backup Cole Davis. James Hendricks has now completed his redshirt season without burning it, giving the Bison the three signal callers they need to preserve incoming freshman Henry Van Dellen's redshirt.
Offensive line: this is legitimately interesting. Joe Haeg is going to be the third Bison offensive tackle to graduate from NDSU and play in the NFL over the course of the last five years. Former UM-Crookston transfer and effective right guard Jeremy Kelly is gone as well. The Bison will return tackle Landon Lechler, guard Zack Johnson and center Austin Kuhnert. The first big question is how to fill the most important position on the offensive line, left tackle. The Bison moved their right tackle to left after Turner left, and could possibly do the same this season.
It's also possible the Bison feel "little" Zack Johnson, a redshirting freshman in 2015 from Blaine, MN or Colin Conner, a will-be Sophomore in 2016 could step right in and keep Lechler on the right side. I'm almost certain the Bison will finally find a full-time role for the monstrous Jack Plankers. I'm penciling in the 6'7" 320 pound Plankers in somewhere on the right side, either at guard or right tackle. Fellow North Dakota Native Tanner Volson will be a key contributor, providing interior o-line depth.
Interior defensive line: the favorite might surprise you. NDSU brought in a very highly touted trio of defensive tackles from Minnesota last season in 2015. Jack Darnell, Connor Hubbs and Bryan Carlton all redshirted this past season and will provide valuable depth all season long in 2016. Grant Morgan is also an oft-used player. He'll be a junior in 2016. The highest rated recruit NDSU is bringing in is three star DT from Wisconsin Cameron Hackl.
Despite all that, the front runner to team with Tanguay next season is Aaron Steidl. The former walk-on from Carlos, MN is the front runner to team with the dominant Nate Tanguay. That's a heckuva thought for the Missouri Valley, considering Steidl is going to be just a Sophomore. That potentially sets up two years teaming with Tanguay and a senior season next to Darnell, Hubbs or Carlton. Yeesh
Defensive backfield: you could go at this two ways. The first way would shore up the corner position. You could move free safety Tre Dempsey back to corner. That accomplishes a number of things. First, the starting corners are set. 2015 nickel back Jalen Allison played the exact same role that Dempsey did in 2014. Both players were the third cornerback, but neither played inside. Both Allison and Dempsey have outside corner size and outside corner experience.
That move would also move future star Robbie Grimsley to his more natural free safety position. This scenario would create an open competition at strong safety. This would be between 2015 freshmen Braden Sikes, Jaxon Brown, Jaylaan Wimbush, and Isaac Cenescar. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bison beefed up 2016 sophomore Eric Bachmeier and gave him a shot.
The other way to go would be the Heagle/Dudzik path. Keep two studs at safety together for three seasons. That's they way I'm guessing the Bison will go, at least to start. Having Grimsley and Dempsey quarterback the back end worked just fine this year, and it should be just good enough to work next year. Allison, at 6'0" 180 has the size and coverage ability to be a #1 corner, there's no question about it. I'm guessing they will use 2016 sophomore Dakota Reid at the other cornerback position. Reid is a Jordan Champion clone at 5'9" 185.
In NDSU's base Cover 2, you can get away with being a little green at the corner position, as long as the safeties are assignment-sure playmakers. In the nickel, I expect a similar tact that the Bison have used over the past two seasons. The third corner will more than likely be Dominic Davis, a freshman who redshirted this season, but often practiced with the starters and would have been used in the case of a serious injury to any of the top three corners. Davis will likely enter the game in passing situation and play outside corner with Reid sliding into the nickel.
Other options at corner could include Fargo native Ty Brooks, who redshirted in 2015, 2016 senior and junior college transfer Quinten McCoy or maybe even incoming freshman Felix Dixon.
BisonReport's 2-Deep for 2016
QB: Easton Stick, Cole Davis
X-WR: RJ Urzendowski, Dmitri Williams
LT: Landon Lechler, Colin Conner
LG: Zack Johnson, Tanner Volson
C: Austin Kuhnert, Zack Ziemer
RG: Zack Ziemer, Tanner Volson
RT: Jack Plankers, "Little" Zack Johnson
TE: Connor Wentz, Ben Ellefson
SLOT: Darrius Shepherd, Jeff Illies
RB: King Frazier, Bruce Anderson
FB: Brock Robbins, Dan Sargeant
Z-WR: Sean Engel, Marquise Bridges
LE: Brad Ambrosious, Stanley Jones
DT: Aaron Steidl, Connor Hubbs
DT: Nathan Tanguay, Grant Morgan
RE: Greg Menard, Jarrod Tuszka
SAM: Pierre Gee-Tucker, Chris Board
MIKE: Nick DeLuca, Matt Plank
WILL: MJ Stumpf, Levi Jordheim
CB: Jalen Allison, Ty Brooks
FS: Tre Dempsey, Eric Bachmeier
SS: Robbie Grimsley, Jaylaan Wimbush
CB: Dakota Reid, Dominic Davis
NICKEL: Dakota Reid, Ty Brooks
Replacing Ben? Perhaps the biggest question mark of all is how to replace All American Punter Ben LeCompte. Field position is so important to the way the Bison play football and LeCompte provided such an advantage in that department. The Bison are still very much alive for the services of top 10 punter Brandon Nickle, having offered him a full ride scholarship. If Nickle decides to go elsewhere, the Bison will have to re-open specialist recruiting or stick with incumbent backup Ian Gallagher.
The Bulldog: The Bison used three true freshmen in key roles this season. Running back Bruce Anderson, safety Robbie Grimsley and wider receiver Dmitri Williams all contributed to the 2015 squad. Because of that, all three players had very different training regiments than the rest of their recruiting class. As their classmates added weight to prepare for the rigors of division I football, Anderson Grimsley and Williams had to play.
The idea of Robbie Grimsley and Bruce Anderson adding 12-15 pounds of muscle without losing any speed should be terrifying to the rest of the FCS. Williams will also advance physically, but Grimsley and Anderson will be the primary beneficiaries of a full off-season in Jim Kramer's program.
Tough schedule: The Bison have a very difficult slate in 2016. The Bison play in (by far) the best conference in the FCS. Not only that, but they play defending Big Ten West champion Iowa in a true road game and tangle with perennial Big Sky power Eastern Washington. The Bison also trade Southern Illinois (who hasn't been a problem for the Bison) for two time co-MVFC champion Illinois State. In fact, the Bison will open up conference play against the Redbirds on homecoming.
Looking for #11: I don't mean Carson Wentz. The Bison (and their fans) know that Wentz will not be around next season. They will, however, be looking for an 11th game and a sixth home game. It's likely that the Bison are looking for a season opening game on Saturday, September 3rd. One prominent FCS team with an open date on the 3rd? Jacksonville State.