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Too Young to Win?

The boo birds are at it already. Claiming the Herd is too young to get number four in a row. Don’t put me in that camp and here are the reasons why. For those who want a deep dig I am suggesting you go back and read my preseason analysis from last year (Why the Herd are Best Pick, Aug. 15,2019). I, in great detail, lay the foundation for why the Bison stand alone at the top of the FCS world. Accomplishing what no other team has done, eight championships in nine years (7 of 8 last year when published).

The stick that has stirred the drink is the exceptional defense Code Green has provided. I point out that the difference is literally measured in miles of yardage and multiples of 100’s of points given up by the teams we have competed against in the playoffs. My prediction last year was as follows: “Where does this leave us as a defense heading into 2019? I am going on record as predicting that at the end of the year our defensive statistics will not exceed any of the norms of excellence in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense (325 YPG, 125 YPG and 20 PPG). I also believe they will not exceed any of our yearly averages from the last eight years”.

How did Code Green actually perform? In the two most important stats, total defense and scoring defense we were stellar at 274.7 YPG and allowing 12.3 PPG. Our pass defense was the best in the nine year run at 138.6 YPG. Our rushing defense came in at 136.1 YPG. Instead of glossing over this (it is more than my bench mark of 125YPG), let’s look at why. Was it weakness in our DL? No! It came down to four games and excessive scrum yardage when basically we had our scout squad defense in the game. These games were Delaware, Youngstown State, Western Illinois & South Dakota. We led 33-8, 49-10, 40-7 and 49-7 in the 4th quarter.

Unlike other teams we don’t run up the scores. We cleared the bench playing true freshman in the DL. The biggest difference last year was that with these teams being blown out, they didn’t go to a desperation pass offense. In this scenario Code Green usually racks up sacks and negative rushing yardage. Delaware brought in their future star QB (dual threat) and a freshman RB who ended the year with 1100 yards rushing (and has since hit the transfer portal). They got over 100 yards and 2 TD’s. Youngstown State put their QB of the future (Mark Waid) in and he got 79 yards on the ground. Western IL got about a 100 yards rushing in the 4th Quarter (we played everybody who dressed for the game). Finally the Coyotes kept it on the ground even though trailing by 49-7 in the 4th quarter. QB, Austin Simmons, who averaged 261.8 YPG against the other 11 teams he played only got 73 yards passing versus Code Green. These 4th quarter anomalies added up to 20 YPG when averaged over 16 games. Both Delaware & YSU were playing to the future and WIU and USD were running out the clock to get out of town.

Let’s dive into the spring roster to see my prognosticating for this year’s performance.

We lost Cole Karcz and Jack Darnell to graduation from the DT room and senior Matt Biegler decided to forego the spring schedule after playing his last game in the fall versus Central Arkansas. Is the cupboard bare? Not really. Lane Tucker is back after leading the DT room with 32 tackles as a sophomore. Costner Ching is back after tallying 28 as a sophomore as well. Vying for rotation time will be Javier Derritt and Eli Mostaert as red shirt freshman. Derritt was the Kansas 4A player of the year his senior year in HS, an award rarely given to a DT.

In 2014, after the three peat (and graduation of 24 seniors) our DT room was junior Brian Schaetz and red shirt freshmen Nate Tanguay and Grant Morgan who hadn’t played a down yet. We won our fourth NC with two rookie DT’s.

This year adding to the mix of the two freshmen is Michael Buetow from Div II runner up MN Mankato. He is a stout 6’0” 283 lbs and should see plenty of playing time. On passing downs, I expect to see Spencer Waege go inside. At 6’5” and 276 lbs he is big enough to handle the load.

I thought last year’s DE room was loaded, but this year takes the cake with both quantity and quality. Waege and Logan McCormick return with the most experience and totaled 10.5 sacks. I see Waege as a potential All-American and McCormick not far behind. Both have equal stats to what Derek Tuszka had as a sophomore. Tony Pierce logged 23 tackles and 2 sacks as a red shirt frosh in 12 games. His style is similar to Greg Menards. Red shirt frosh Jake Kava played in 11 games and logged 12 tackles, 3 TFL’s and ½ a sack. Brendan Cook and Bart Ogbu were making names for themselves before injuries curtailed their seasons at two and four games. Add in true freshman Will Mostaert (All-State 1st team in MN) who tallied 2 TFL’s and 2 sacks. Wisconsin defensive player of the year, Reed Ryan, didn’t see playing time but has great credentials. Then in December an All-Conference sack leader transferred from MN-Mankato. Brayden Thomas is 6’3” and 260 lbs. He tallied 21 TFL’s and 11.5 sacks. We are nine deep at DE’s.

Now to my favorite position, linebacker (what would you expect from a former Bison linebacker?). Jackson Hankey exceeded expectations, leading Code Green with 127 tackles. Here’s what I said about Hankey going into last year: “Surrounding Cox will be Jackson Hankey, he is taking over in the middle with more experience than Marlett did last year. Dan only had 10 tackles in 2017 (lost most of season thru a knee injury) Hankey played in 14 games and had 27 tackles. I also am going to listen to the best defensive coaches in the country when they say this kid is Grant Olsonish in his smarts and knowing how to align the defense pre-snap”. I guess I can check the “I was right box” on that one.

Next to Hankey will be James Kaczor. He skipped his red shirt year and was a back up strong safety and special team terror. Last year he rotated in on passing downs and was really a shared starter with Aaron Mercadel. Even with missing two games with a “nagging” injury he was fourth in tackles with 77. When looking at past line backing greats, think of Travis Beck, but a step faster. He has put on weight and is listed at 6’0” and 211 lbs. James is a coaches kid and is rarely out of position.

The third starting LB is Jasir Cox. He played a good game against Central Arkansas in the fall. He, again, is a converted safety from high school. At 6’0” & 207 lbs, he is not your typical run stuffer, but in the RPO, wide open offenses of today, you better have LB’s that can cover backs out of the back field and slot receivers or TE’s. In reality this could be a whole article on how different our LB’s have been in coverage’s down field. In fact our offense is always creating mismatches with opposing LB corps.

I am excited about the back up in the middle (Nick Weerts). He is the highest ranked Bison LB recruit. He waved the red shirt to be a special team’s warrior. Mason Hofstedt and Mitchel Kartes are the backups on the outside. They are now in their 3rd & 4th year in the Bison program.

I am expecting real growth from Hankey and Kaczor as second year starters. Code Green is a finely tuned machine. We don’t dominate in defense without the front seven playing smart and tough assignment football. I am going to be blunt here, I see many FBS teams play and they “play stupid”. They are out of position, don’t know their assignments and hurt their teams. They make a tackle on a seven yard gain and celebrate like they won the Super Bowl. That not only is “bush league”, it is bad football and coaching.

Now to Code Green’s secondary. We are strong at safety, very strong. Michael Tutsie is a budding All-American. He’s another coach’s kid, who plays smart and hard. As a sophomore he was second in team tackles with 105 and led the team in INT’s with 7. His backup is Julian Wlodarczyk. At 6’3” and 203 lbs he puts a hit on you. He should regain his red shirt this year.

At free safety we lose a Bison favorite, “Johnny Football”, James Hendricks. But Dawson Weber filled in well in two games when James was down with a small injury. He had 25 tackles in his reserve roll and special teams. He grabbed his 1st INT in the Central Arkansas game. Behind him is Dom Jones at 6’2” and 194 lbs. Look for him to be a special teams stud and get playing time.

The last line of defense is the cornerbacks. Josh Hayes started the 2017 National Championship game as a true freshman as injuries decimated the CB group. He is solid. I hope he stays with the offer of getting his red shirt back. Destin Talbert the other starter (he forewent a red shirt year) got burnt versus Central Arkansas leading to some question marks. He in a backup role in 2019 had 24 tackles and 5 passes defended & 5 pass break ups. Proportionally he was on par with Marquise Bridges production.

The CB room is thin in experience beyond these two.

I think we need to look at the history of the current streak of excellence. In 2015 we had lost two stalwarts in the secondary, Christian Dudzik and Colten Heagle (they combined for a 172 tackles & 7 INT’s in 2014). Our first game of the year was at Montana. They had a new coach who did up tempo offense. They torched us for 434 passing yards and 38 points. Hell, we didn’t even know how to line up. It was bad. We met them in the playoffs and held them to 229 yards and seven points (they only got 6 yards rushing). Our teams grow and develop over the course of the season.

Why am I going into this? I think we will be fine at cornerback by the time we play SDSU and UNI in games seven and eight.

Over all I think Code Green will perform at the same level they have performed in the last nine years.

Can we even win a game now that Trey has gone to the NFL on us? That is tongue and check. What a recommendation to Trey’s skills (I know of no other FBS QB going in the first round after only one year as a starter) and to Randy Hedberg and the Bison program as a development program. I will get back to the QB room, but want to start in the trenches.

Covid hurt us most in the OL. To lose Dillon Radunz (a top 100 draft pick candidate) to a single game senior season is huge. It compounded with Karson Schoening playing just the one fall game and moving onto post school adult life. Adding in the loss of Zack Johnson to the NFL thru graduation, the Rams went from having to replace one stud to replacing three. Then just before the start of spring game prep practice, A J Blazek, the OL coach, left for an FBS promotion (yes we develop coaches as well).

Don’t despair; great recruiting classes and Kramer are here for the rescue. Cordell Volson, who came into the 2019 season as the versatile sixth man off the bench, is flipping from RT to Radunz’s LT position. Cordell is a stud. He moved an All-American, NFL player (Zack Johnson) to RG.

We are taking a backup LT, Jalen Sundell, (in 2019 he was in 12 regular-season games, played 102 snaps at left tackle with 12 knockdowns and zero sacks allowed) and moving him to center. In high school he was his classifications offensive player of the year. Folks, that usually goes to QB’s, RB’s or WR’s. Another rangy, athletic kid that beefed out under Kramer’s school of hard knocks and heavy lifts (think Radunz & Haeg type). Don’t be surprised if he becomes all conference.

Nash Jensen is the hold over at LG. He is another Bison I consider to be an NFL prospect. So we will be solid there at 6’4” 327 lbs. Kramer had to go the other way with Nash. He was a strong natural athlete, but over weight (plus 350 lbs and not good weight). In high school you can get away with this, but not at the higher levels.

I love the Cody Mauch story. He was recruited as a walk on out of Hankinson ND. He was a great athlete. 6’5” and 225 lbs. Played TE, QB and DE. Came to Herd as a TE. Kramer got a hold of him and put on 70 good pounds and now he’s our RT. Last year he was in the OL when we went with an extra lineman. Also he caught a two point conversion as a TE. Maybe another Joe Haeg story in the makings here. His smile is infectious.

Rounding out the OL is Zach Kubas at RG. He is a legacy walk on from Dickinson (dad played DL for Code Green in the 90’s). He has waited his turn to start. He has logged 26 games as a backup. Kramer has packed on 40 lbs, so at 6’4” 300 lbs he has the beef to move people. He is one of five walk ons from the 2016 class to significantly impact through playing and filling out the depth chart (Quinn Alo, Matt Biegler, Trevor Heit and Cole Jacob are the others). The Bison have the best walk on success of any program in the country hands down!

Because of the Covid reshuffle we only have three backups that have three years of college experience under their belts (Jake Kubas, Nick Radunz & Zack Willis). We had a great recruiting class for OL in 2019. Hunter Poncius has gone from 6’7” 247 lbs to 6’8” 300 lbs, Jake Rock from 6’6” 247 to 6’6” 297 lbs and Brandon Westberg from 6’3” 260 to 6’4” 284 lbs. Mason Miller from Ada MN has already cracked the two deep at LT. He has been Kramerized to the tune of going from 6’6” 232 to 6’6” 277.

How do the crew chiefs look this year? Ben Ellefson graduated to the NFL. Ben’s break out season in college was his junior year. He had 14 catches for 8 TD’s. Guess who are Juniors this year? Babicz and Gindorff. Not that they need a break out season. Last year was pretty good as they combined for 22 catches for 362 yards and 11 TD’s. At 6’6” 255 and 6’6” 266 these are the biggest run blocking TE’s we’ve had at SU. Add in that they are fast, athletic and have good hands. My prediction is they terrorize the MVFC the next two years before graduating to the NFL.

Austin Avery provides depth and versatility. He also lines up at fullback as well (roots LB’s out at 6’3” 249 lbs). Add in highly recruited red shirt freshmen Travis Yohnke and Jaden Klabo and true freshman Joe Stoffel and there are plenty of good pieces at TE now and in the future.

At full back, we lost "meat stick", Garrett Malstrom to graduation. He is another stud that epitomizes the tough nature of the Bison program. A walk on From Vargas MN, he was a literal bowling ball at 6’0” 250 lbs. Will we lose sleep? No, Hunter Luepke is in the room. He set the Wisconsin TD record at 95. This guy is a Swiss Army knife. At 6’1” 245 lbs he is fast and has great hands. He loves blocking. I think coach Roehl needs to put him at tail back for the short yardage package. This guys is an athlete plus. 49-0 as a wrestler his senior year and played center field on the baseball team (all conference three straight years). He was just named preseason MVFC 1st team All-Conference. I am sure glad most FBS programs don’t use antiquated formations that need a fullback so studs like Luepke slip thru the cracks to us.

We will find playing time for new walk on red shirt freshmen Hunter Brosio (6’0” 235 lbs) and Logan Hofstedt (6’1” 237 lbs).

Staying with the running game, the RB room was hit hard by Covid, graduation and attrition. The Herd graduated the magical speedster, Ty Brooks and running mate, Dimitri Williams. Adam Cofield transferred to FBS, Western Kentucky and Saybein Clark decided to give up football. That’s a lot of production and experience.

Getting Seth Wilson back is a blessing. He was the best back on the field against Central Arkansas. Going into the 2019 season, many considered him to be the best returning RB. He needs to stay healthy. Kobe Johnson returns after a great true freshman year. Hopefully he will regain the redshirt season with the freebie the NCAA is allowing for Covid.

D J Stewart and Jalen Bussey bring promise, but not much experience. Neither are big power backs (Roehl you need to use Luepke at tail back some, just saying). Stewart is 5’11” 187 lbs and Bussey a diminutive 5’5” 161 lbs (his is a speed game, not power).

The Bison have three true freshman RB’s. Dominic Gonnella at 5’11” 205 lbs. T K Marshall at 5’11 199 lbs (rated the top RB in MN) and Nathan Goldade 5’11” 198 lbs.

They will need to shoulder some of the load. Does this overly concern me? Not really. Just think back to Chase Morlock, Bruce Anderson and Kobe Johnson. All made significant contributions as true freshmen and to teams that won National Championships.

Last year when discussing the state of the WR’s room I said; “I do not see the Wide Receiver Room as a problem in 2019. Yes, they don’t have a ton of experience, but they are long on talent….. We have never had a problem with developing wide receivers to fit our pass efficiency styled attack. Mark my words; Noah Pauley will coach his boys up this season”. I think old Dober got this one right as well.

Christian Watson is a multiple threat with the ball in his hands (just ask the Bobcats), Sproles is in the mold of Darrius Sheppard. Mathis at 6’6” is a match up problem. Braylon Henderson looks very good in the slot and in punt returns. Cole Jacob is my lunch bucket special. A walk on that excels in all phases as a wide receiver. I love how he blocks and is sneaky fast and runs great routes to get open. Add to this a plethora of new youngsters and Zeb will have a lot of weapons to throw to.

Now to the QB room. First let’s give coach Hedberg his due as a ND legend. Wow, his third drafted QB off to the NFL (two being first round picks). The last two he was in on the recruitment evaluations and the full development of both on the field with the Herd. Having given Hedberg this praise, I am not worried about Zeb at the helm going into this spring season. In fact I am going on record, barring injury, that we will be as pleasantly surprised by Noland’s handling of the offense as we were with Treys.

Zeb has valuable experience at the FBS level at a Power 5 school. He’s big at 6’2” 224 lbs, so the QB run game isn’t out the window. I think he will be somewhere between Easton Stick and Brock Jensen (oh, both of these are the winningest QB’s in FCS history). He might have the best arm of any Bison QB. He’s a coach’s kid and a film rat.

Finding a backup would be made easy if the NCAA allows transfer Quincy Patterson to play this spring, but I doubt if they will do any favors for the Herd in this regard. Logan Graetz is a red shirt Frosh with no field snaps. Cam Miller was the best QB coming out of Iowa last year, so he would be my guess to take over if Zeb went down. We would have to nurse him in like we did with Easton when Wentz went down. Let’s knock on wood for Zeb to stay injury free. I really want to see him winging the ball around to Luepke, Gindorff, Babicz, Watson, Sproles, Henderson, etc.

The curse of Covid depleted and robbed many Bison seniors of a normal send off. That is truly sad. This problem is FCS wide. The Blue Bunnies were down to four RB’s, two true frosh, a sophomore with 2 career carries and Pierre Strong. They added a grad transfer this week from FCS Sacred Heart or they would have been in real trouble. As I stated in my analysis of the MVFC, UNI and Illinois State lost many key players.

What will this mean? FCS teams will be fielding many true freshmen players and unready sophomores. The good programs have recruited better athletes than the poorer programs, so they will sort out accordingly. In the early games we might see more penalties, missed assignments and physical mismatches with older players.

I feel the Bison have the most returning players of any FCS program. We also have the most sophomores with starting experience (remember the jump for many to stardom in Bison history is at this point). We have Waege, McCormick, Tucker and Ching in the defensive line. The LB’s have Kaczor and Hankey making that jump. In the DB rotation we have Tutsie and Talbert. Folks, that’s eight players that are ready to explode into their full potential.

On offense we have Nash Jensen, Seth Wilson, Watson, Sproles, Babicz, and Gindorff. That’s six more sophs that started who are jumping into their junior years. These numbers of sophomores is reminiscent of the 2011 team to the 2012 team. If they progress like previous Bison sophomores have, who is better equipped in the FCS for a National Title run?

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