In the second of five Friday previews leading up to North Dakota State University’s opening game against Kansas State, Pinto’s Points will preview the 2013 Bison defense.
To say the football team at North Dakota State University has had a solid defense the past two years would be a vast understatement. To put it into words doesn’t do this defense justice. The stats alone, which are gaudy, cannot describe the dominance.
To me, the one number that stands out is 12. That is the number that stands for points allowed per game by this NDSU defense in the last 30 games. Two seasons, which include back-to-back national championship titles, where the defense didn’t even allow two touchdowns per game.
While you allow that number to sink in, I will give you my breakdown on the defensive line, linebackers and secondary including who I believe will start at each position for the 2013 Bison.
The key to success for this group is depth. It has been for the last two seasons. Being able to plug in a number of players at any position on the d-line and have no drop off in production is hard to find at the FCS level.
The Bison knew they had good defensive lineman in Kyle Emanuel, Cole Jirik and Leevon Perry going into last season. They now know, along with those three, they can put in players like Mike Hardie, Danny Luecke and Brian Schaetz and feel comfortable.
Luecke and Schaetz were thrown into the fire due to the injury to Perry last season and will have the chance to start the season against Kansas State because of the one-game suspension of Perry. While not idea, it does allow the coaches to breathe easier knowing what to expect out of the two players.
The question now becomes what freshman will challenge for playing time this season. Players like Austin Farnlof, the redshirt freshman from Cave Creek, Ariz., and Nick Jacobsen, the true freshman from Prescott, Wis., will have to show what they are made of during camp. It is a tough lineup to crack.
Starting Defensive Lineman:
DE - Kyle Emanuel, Cole Jirik DT - Leevon Perry, Ryan Drevlow
Best Defensive Lineman:
Cole Jirik - 2012 Stats: 57 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, 10 OB hurries
The heart and soul of this defense resides at the linebacker position. All of last year's starters, senior Grant Olson, juniors Travis Beck and Carlton Littlejohn, are back after accounting for 332 tackles, 31 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks and nine forced fumbles.
You know what you are going to get out of these three players. The biggest question mark for the linebacking squad is depth. Last year, Beck, Littlejohn and Olson started every game. That kind of wear and tear needs to be reduced if you want these three playing their best ball come December.
The back-ups are young with a total of nine redshirt and true freshman at linebacker on the roster. There is also a major lack of experience with those back-ups returning from last year's team. Senior Antonio Rodgers & junior Esley Thorton combined for 32 tackles in 26 games.
From the sounds of it, the freshman still have a ways to go before they are ready while Thorton has made some big strides from last year to this year. Even so, don't expect the starting three to see much of a decrease in playing time this season.
OLB - Travis Beck, Carlton Littlejohn MLB - Grant Olson
Grant Olson - 2012 Stats: 148 tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks
So you have made it past the d-line and linebackers? Good! Let me introduce you to Colten Heagle and company. What is that? You would rather pass? No, go ahead. Just remember you have probably the best coverage corner in FCS football on one-side of the field in Marcus Williams.
The Bison might have the best combination between pass coverage and run stoppers in the secondary. Even without Heagle last year, the team did just fine with Christian Dudzik stepping in nicely at the safety position.
Heagle is back and at full strength as he has been practicing without a knee brace throughout fall practice. Dudzik has a year of playing at safety under his belt after starting his career at cornerback. Williams is, well, Williams. You don't throw against him.
The question is who will fill in the other corner position. Senior Brendin Pierre seems like the choice early on but don't count out sophomores Jordan Champion and CJ Smith. Both played in all 15 games last year with CJ Smith starting against Prairie View A&M. Regardless of who starts, the depth in the secondary is very deep and any player can step in to do the job.
Starting Defensive Secondary:
DB - Brendin Pierre, Marcus Williams S - Christian Dudzik, Colten Heagle
Best Defensive Secondary Player:
Marcus Williams - 2012 Stats: 39 tackles, 7 interceptions, 1 defensive touchdown
Special Teams, to me, is the most underrated aspect of the game behind the play of the offensive line. It is no coincidence that NDSU has been brilliant at both aspects the past two years. Last year, the opponents averaged 20.8 yards on kick returns and 6.2 on punt returns.
The coverage was outstanding and freshman punter Ben LeCompte was arguably the best punter in the Missouri Valley Football Conference last season. He averaged 43.1 yards per punt, 12th best in the nation and was added to growing list of solid punters under head coach Craig Bohl.
Don't expect any drop off this year, which in turn will aid the defense to again be the best in the FCS and possibly etch itself in Bison lore as the greatest defense in the program's history.