NDSU Bison loaded with veterans in search for third national title

Associated Press
While the Missouri Valley Conference remains deep, two-time defending national champion North Dakota State has emerged as the program the rest of the conference and the country looks up to.

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota State returns 18 starters from a team that has won 28 of 30 games the last two years and claimed back-to-back Football Championship Subdivision titles.

Coach Craig Bohl started this year's campaign with a history lesson.

The only team to win three straight FCS or Division I-AA titles is Appalachian State from 2005-07. The former coach of that team, Jerry Moore, came to Fargo earlier this year to talk to Bison players about what it takes to stay on top.

The gist of Moore's speech: Don't be satisfied. Bohl said his players were paying attention.

"As a coach you are always looking for signs of complacency," Bohl said. "We have not seen that in anything."

The reason, Bohl said, is maturity and a healthy dose of competition. Even backup quarterback Carson Wentz, whose performance in practice drove Brock Jensen's heir apparent Esley Thornton to switch to linebacker, is pushing for playing time against a QB who is 32-5 as starter.

"Carson Wentz has made Brock Jensen better," Bohl said. "We've got that at a lot of spots."

Along with Jensen, a senior who isn't always flashy but excels in big games, NDSU returns pro prospects in cornerback Marcus Williams and left tackle Billy Turner, game-breaking kick returners in Williams and Ryan Smith, a linebacker in Grant Olson who set a school record with 29 tackles in one game last season, and their hardest-hitting defensive player in free safety Colton Heagle, back from an injury in 2012.

Even punter Ben LeCompte and kicker Adam Keller are among 10 Bison on the all-Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason team.

"We're well pleased with the leadership of our group," Bohl said. "We do have a tremendous amount of experience; more than we've had since I've been head coach. But that does not automatically qualify for a great year."

The Bison, who open the season Friday at Kansas State, have experienced just one hiccup in each of the last two years, both in conference games. Two years ago, they lost 27-24 at home to Youngstown State. Last year, they lost 17-14 at home to Indiana State.

Williams said that faring well against Kansas State and winning the conference are more important than an unblemished record.

"Sure, who wouldn't want to go undefeated?" Turner said. "But our No. 1 goal right now is our first game at Kansas State."

Williams said Friday's game against last year's Big 12 Conference champs cannot come soon enough for the Bison, who have a 6-3 record against FBS teams under Bohl.

The Bison defeated Colorado State last year, Minnesota in 2011 and Kansas in 2010.

"Going against each other in practice day in and day out, it gets a little boring. People start getting mad at each other and stuff like that," he said.

Smith, a Wahpeton, N.D., native, said that while opening with Kansas State is an exciting way to start the season, it's more important to go into December on a roll.

"You've just got to know as a team you are going to move forward," he said. "We can't have these drawbacks. We can't start the season out strong and end up weak."

Turner, from Shoreview, Minn., doesn't have to look far for advice. His father was drafted by Minnesota Vikings in 1983 and played five years with the Vikings, Green Bay Packers and New York Jets. His brother was drafted by the New York Giants.

"The only thing I've heard from them is forget about the pro scouts," Turner said. "They're going to see what they want to see. You just have to go out and play the game and have fun. This is my last guaranteed year of football ever."

Williams, from Minneapolis, feels like he has to prove himself again this year.

"It doesn't matter what I did last year, it all depends on what I do this year," he said. "I know scouts are looking. I hear that every day. I really don't look at it that much, because I care about the team."