Opinion: Herd following The Herd: Another reloading year for the Bison?

Sam Herder

Sam Herder

Journal Sports

A team doesn’t win four straight national championships without having the need to reload. You hear it all the time about North Dakota State, whether it’s the fans, coaches or administration: “We don’t rebuild here, we reload.”

True, yes, the Bison have lost key contributors after each FCS national title. But they haven’t gone through a true transition of players … until this year.

Doubts were understandably surrounding the team in 2014, with players like Brock Jensen, Marcus Williams, Billy Turner and Grant Olson graduating. But many downplayed, or simply underestimated, the amount of core guys coming back.

Last year’s team was still largely made up of guys who contributed on the first national championship team. Players like Christian Dudzik, Colten Heagle, Travis Beck and Carlton Littlejohn remained.

After the undefeated 2013 season ended, many deemed it the end of an era. But was it really? With players still on the roster that contributed in the 2011 season, a core of all the national championship teams were still strapping on the gold helmets.

Last season was strange for Bison fans because they expected so much to change. Craig Bohl and 20-plus seniors were gone. But honestly, it was like nothing had changed at all.

This season, though, might be different.

Instead of a roster with players who have been there since title No. 1 sprinkled with players who’ve contributed to the last one or two championships, this year’s roster has players who’ve contributed to the last one or two titles and sprinkled with players who probably committed to NDSU after watching the Bison win the first or second one.

Yes, when a team is on such a ridiculous run of titles, confusing sentences like the previous one tends to happen when trying to clump them all together.

The point is NDSU will actually have a different look this year, particularly on the defensive side. But it’s not like they’ll be young.

The Bison will start a handful of juniors on defense, but those juniors have waited three years to play a significant role outside of special teams as the championship core players slowly left the program.

Yes, the Bison still have Zach Vraa, Joe Haeg, Andrew Bonnet, Brian Schaetz and CJ Smith, players who have started more than one game in Frisco, Texas. Quarterback Carson Wentz and wide receiver RJ Urzendowski played heroes in last year’s playoff run and return this year.

But then you have players like linebackers Pierre Gee-Tucker and MJ Stumpf and safeties Andrew Smith and Chris Board. In past years, coaches said they were hoping these guys could step in and take some snaps away from Littlejohn, Beck, Dudzik and Heagle. Yet, these guys barely saw the field with the first team defense.

Now, they step into starting roles. They’ve watched the man in front of them on the depth chart do what it takes to be a champion. The question is will the Bison reload this year or rebuild?

Offensively, the Bison are set with an offensive line having the potential to be the best in school history. Quarterback? No problem. Wentz.

NDSU needs to find playmakers outside of dependable pass catchers Vraa, Urzendowski and Albers. And running back is looking like a multi-headed attack.

The question mark of this team has been talked about since the 2014 season ended. For the first time in four years, uncertainties surround the defense.

No doubt, the Bison have fine-looking athletes filling in the major roles of linebacker, safety and defensive end.

But when you go from guys who have started 50-plus games to guys who have started zero, the unit might have its struggles.

How uneasy did Bison fans feel in the playoffs after South Dakota State, Coastal Carolina and Illinois State had no problem finding the endzone? The Bison were literally minutes away from being eliminated in the second round against the Jackrabbits.

Can this 2015 team sustain another playoff run of close games?

NDSU is the favorite again to win the national title this year. As they should be. Its offense will be electric and most believe head coach Chris Klieman and his staff will have the defense ready to go. Because, sidenote, it doesn’t take a lot to have an upper-tier defense in the FCS.

Looking at the regular season schedule, the Bison should make it through with only one hiccup somewhere in there. A 10-1 record should be good for a No. 1 or 2 seed, securing home field advantage.

But again, can this team make it through a game similar to Coastal Carolina? Or multiple games in one playoff run?

We’ve heard “These guys just know how to win and how to find a way to win” so many times in the last few years. But those “guys” are gone.

Can this new core of players find ways to win? Will they keep the championship tradition going? We’ll see in the first test Saturday on ESPN when No. 1 NDSU goes to No. 13 Montana.

As an NDSU graduate who covered Bison sports the last three years for the campus newspaper, Sam will provide insight on the football team’s run to a fifth straight national championship. Harry will join the fun and contribute a weekly UND football column.