(Stats Perform) - North Dakota State's starting lineup against Central Arkansas on Saturday will be different when the three-time defending FCS champion returns to action in late February for its Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule.
The Bison's only game this fall is the final one for left tackle Dillon Radunz, who will transition into training for the 2021 NFL Draft. Sixth-year linebacker Aaron Mercadel said he doesn't plan to return for the spring season. Other seniors may have received a degree and won't be back as well. Plus, quarterback Trey Lance will be playing his final game if, as is highly anticipated, he enters the draft as an underclassman.
Would the loss of key players make the Bison vulnerable in the spring season when they try to build on nine straight conference titles and eight national titles in the last nine years?
Sure, it has to with some degree, but at the same time, NDSU has continued its FCS dynasty by restocking the lineup from year to year. The 2019 team returned only seven starters yet went 16-0 and continued a winning streak that stands at an FCS-record 37 games.
"The program's bigger than any one individual," second-year coach Matt Entz said, "and it will continue to be that."
NDSU's "next-man-up" philosophy works better than anywhere else in the FCS. The Bison aren't alone with spring changes as top teams across the FCS have lost key players to transfers or soon to training for the NFL draft. It includes the other MVFC teams that qualified for the national playoffs last season - Illinois State, Northern Iowa and South Dakota State .
While NDSU coaches and players like to point to how the responsibility of being a Bison is handed down from one recruiting class to the next, the coaching staff has kept the motivation high whether former coaches Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman or Entz has been in charge.
"A number of things," offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl said. "The way we practice - we double rep, meaning we're splitting that team right in half. You can see the 1s on one field, the 2s on another field. They're running the same script of plays. Even in the recruiting process, you just say, 'Hey, you're not just going to stand there in your first year and watch practice happen, you're going to be in there doing that.' I'm a true believer in you learn by doing it. You may go to program X, Y and Z and watch a practice and that true freshman may take six snaps. When you're at NDSU, you may take 65 snaps in a practice in a team setting. I truly think that has been so beneficial. And that was a model Coach Bohl brought to NDSU - a foundation that was laid.
"Then also you look at the number of practices that we've been able to accumulate in the last nine years after Thanksgiving every year. Being able to incorporate the time from a semifinal (playoff) game to a national championship, extra reps for young guys, even doing just extra young guy time, so they understand just a little bit more prior to a spring ball (and) they're more confident."
Jeff Kolpack has covered NDSU for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead since 1995 following his father Ed's three decades on the beat. While there's still uncertainty for roster complexion following the Central Arkansas game, Kolpack says the big question for the spring comes down to one position.
"People can decipher the position groups of this team over the years and they've all been good, but to make a long story short, it comes down to the quarterback position when talking about vulnerability," Kolpack said. "The Bison have had the best QB in the FCS for a decade, and if Trey Lance leaves for the NFL, the door certainly opens."
Waiting behind Lance is fifth-year senior Zeb Noland, who transferred from Iowa State last year. Once upon a time, he threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns in a game against Oklahoma. After competing for the starting job with Lance, he appeared in eight games as the backup on last year's championship team.
Noland plans to return in the spring as well as next fall with a sixth year of eligibility, meaning the Bison offense could be in his hands should there be a quarterback change.
"For a program that hasn't taken a lot of transfers, Zeb is the right fit for the Bison," Roehl said. "(He's) really dug into the tradition, the why's, the how's, he's a football junkie. If Zeb doesn't have a football future playing-wise, Zeb's going to be a football coach. I really appreciate last year his help with Trey. Them sitting and watching film together. And then as Trey would come off (to) the sideline with both Coach (Randy) Hedberg (associate head coach/quarterbacks coach) and myself on the sideline, Trey and Zeb having really good dialogue. Zeb understands his role, but we continue to push Zeb. He's all in."
Plenty of other players will be as well. The Bison are No. 1 in the FCS until proven otherwise.