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Preview: 2013 North Dakota State University Offense

by Dan Gunderson

In the third 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 offense.

We can all be honest about this. When you think of North Dakota State University football, you think of the defense. It is okay, I do it myself. I think of Marcus Williams taking back an interception for six and I think of Grant Olson’s 100 or so tackles against Wofford. It is a natural thought.

It might come as a shock to some that the Bison offense is actually really good. Last year, the team averaged 33 points per game, balanced the 370 yards of offense per game nicely between run and pass and didn’t turn the ball over. The time of possession was one of the tops in the nation as was the third down conversion rate.

They are not a flashy, gouge you for 400 yards through the air or on the ground type of offense. They are methodical and surgical in their approach and by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, you would rather see anything else than the hogs up front.

In this preview, I will give my take on the offensive line, wide receivers/tight end, backfield and special teams along with who I believe will start at each position and who I believe the best player is at each position.

Offensive Line:
Gauging how good an offensive line is can sometimes be tough to do. We like to equate stats with success and with offensive lineman, the type of stats the everyday fan can understand don’t exist. With NDSU, the success is hidden in numbers that analyst will geek out over.

For example, last year NDSU converted on nearly 51 percent of their third down chances. The time of possession in the second half for NDSU increased, meaning the offense was sustaining drives. The yards per carry for the Bison were 4.8. Half of the yardage needed for a first down per run is insane.

All these numbers are due to an offensive line that would get stronger as the game went on. Even scarier than all of those numbers might be that NDSU returns all but one starter from last year’s offensive line. The center position is one that may remain a mystery as to who will replace the departed Joe Lund.

When I asked offensive coordinator Brent Vigen about who was the leading candidate for the starting position, he mentioned four players. Depth is apparent, just like at every other position for NDSU, for the offensive line. It is just another scary number for the opposing defensive line when they have to go up against these hogs.

Starting Offensive Lineman:
Center - Jesse Hinz Guard – Josh Colville, Tyler Gimmestad Tackle – Joe Haeg, Billy Turner

Best Offensive Lineman:
Billy Turner – 6’6” 314 lbs. Started 41 of 42 career games

Offensive Backfield:
The NDSU backfield consists of three seniors in fullback Andrew Grothmann, quarterback Brock Jensen and running back Sam Ojuri. The other member of the backfield, junior John Crockett, might not start a game this year but that is irrelevant since he and Ojuri will split the carriers regardless.

The most important place to have experience at is the quarterback position and NDSU has that in buckets with Jensen under center. He has started every FCS playoff game in school history and is undefeated on the road the past two seasons. He may not have the biggest arm or be the fastest runner but he makes the right decision which is all that matters with this offense.

Because NDSU decides to split carriers between two feature backs, no team has runners with fresher legs come December than the Bison. Last year, the two backs combined for nearly 2,100 yards and were still ready to run over opponents late in the season.

Grothmann may be the most important player in NDSU’s running game because without him as lead blocker, the 4.8 yards per carry the Bison averaged last year would be significantly lower. The most thankless job in football is the fullback and Grothmann takes on the task well.

Starting Offensive Backfield:
Quarterback – Brock Jensen Fullback – Andrew Grothmann Running Back – Sam Ojuri

Best Offensive Backfield Player:
John Crockett – 2012 Stats: 194 Carriers / 1,038 Yards  / 9 Touchdowns / 5.4 Yards Per Carry

Wide Receivers/Tight End:
The players you have most likely heard of at this position for NDSU are Trevor Gebhart, Ryan Smith and Zach Vraa. The biggest issue surrounding this group of receivers is health. Junior Nate Moody may be the picture of consistency for receivers, he is the only returning receiver to play all 15 games last year, but he doesn’t have the talent of the other three.

If Gebhart, Smith and Vraa can stay healthy, they will become the most dynamic offense in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Jensen won’t need to throw the deep ball because he can let these three receivers do their damage in the open field.

The tight end position for NDSU essentially acts like a sixth offensive lineman. You don’t expect too much from him in the receiving game but both Taylor Nelson and Kevin Vaadeland are big targets that can be utilized in the red zone.

Some of the younger receivers like Demitrius Gray, Tyler Wrice and Carey Woods could contribute if the starters begin to break down this season. It cannot be emphasized enough that if this unit stays healthy, they will be dangerous. No question about it.

Starting Wide Receivers/Tight End:
WR – Ryan Smith, Zach Vraa Tight End – Kevin Vaadeland

Best Wide Receiver/Tight End:
Ryan Smith – 2012 Stats: 49 Receptions / 549 Yards / 3 Touchdowns / 11.2 Yards Per Catch

Special Teams/Kicker:
The NDSU special teams were outstanding last year and we could see some improvement this year. Junior kicker Adam Keller was named to the MVFC All Preseason First-Team and he wasn’t all that amazing.

While consistent within 40 yards, he only missed one kick within that distance, he was only 2-7 40 yards and beyond. You have to believe that was his main focus this offseason and becoming more consistent from deeper is something I would look for in 2013.

The return game, whether it is Smith on punt returns or Marcus Williams on kick returns, is the most electric in the conference and maybe even the nation. Smith and Williams have single handedly changed the momentum of games with their returns.

They are the home run hitters every team wants in the return game and NDSU is blessed to have two of them. Even Christian Dudzik, who had a 76 yard punt return against the University of South Dakota, is dangerous in the return game.

Starting Returners/Kicker:
Kicker – Adam Keller Kick/Punt Returners – Ryan Smith, Marcus Williams

Best Special Teams/Kicker:
Adam Keller – 2012 Stats: 18 Made Field Goals / 57-61 Points After Touchdown