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Next Year

by Dan Gunderson

The North Dakota State University football team has just completed winning their third straight national title game. The back-to-back-to-back FCS National Champions will graduate 24 seniors including All-Americans Billy Turner and Marcus Williams.

Oh. And, of course, the all-time winningest quarterback in FCS history, Brock Jensen. And Grant Olson. And, well, you get the idea. It would seem NDSU is going to have to replace a lot of key players. Some that people would argue are irreplaceable.

However, the 2014 Bison have the opportunity to be just as good as the 2011 or 2012 version of Bison football. Not 2013. The 2013 version of Bison football will be one that might be impossible to duplicate.

Here is what you have coming back for the Bison. Defensively, the Bison will return the entire linebacking core, three of their starting secondary players and their best pass rusher in Kyle Emanuel.

On offense, the Bison will return a 1,000 yard rusher in John Crockett, a 1,000 yard receiver in Zach Vraa and three of their five starting offensive lineman. Not to mention, back-ups like Mike Hardie and Brian Schaetz on defense and Jack Plankers and Jesse Hinz on offense will be back as well.

To put it in some perspective, in NDSU’s 35-7 win over Towson University, two of the first three touchdowns, the blocked kick and interception were all done by players that will be on NDSU’s roster next season.

NDSU also returns their kicker and punter from arguably the best special teams in the nation. Amazing to think how much comes back after so much was made to do about how many players NDSU was going to lose after this season.

The two biggest question marks headed into next season will be the defensive line and quarterback. On the defensive line, while it would appear three of the starting four spots are going to be claimed, it is the depth at defensive line that will be the question.

NDSU was able to rotate in eight different players on the defensive line and dominate without a problem at the line of scrimmage this season. The defensive line has been so vital to NDSU’s success over the last three seasons. They need to find at least six solid players to continue to be successful next year.

That is going to require new coach, Chris Klieman, asking young, inexperienced players to come in and play big minutes during the season. That won’t be easy considering NDSU’s schedule next season includes Iowa State University and Montana University within in the first month.

The quarterback situation is an even bigger question mark for the Bison. Carson Wentz is currently the player most likely to replace Brock Jensen at quarterback but there is no guarantee that he will be a decent quarterback.

After Steve Walker graduated, many fans felt that his back-up, Nick Mertens, was a better athlete and therefore was going to continue the success NDSU had attained under Walker. Mertens was the better athlete but he was far from a better quarterback.

That is a fear that a lot of people have about Wentz. He looks like the better athlete but there a lot of quarterbacks that probably can run and throw better than Jensen. That does not make them a better quarterback.

Wentz does not need to throw for 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns, but he does need to limit turnovers and make the right decisions. There will be a learning curve and the question is how quickly Wentz can get over that learning curve.

His leash will not be as long as Mertens or even Jensen’s was early on in their careers as a starter. NDSU finally posses some depth at quarterback and players like Derek McGinnis and Cole Davis will not be far behind Wentz if he stumbles.

Early indications are that NDSU will compete for the Missouri Valley Football Conference title again in 2014 and posses enough talent to make a deep playoff run. It is not out of the realm of possibilities that they could find themselves in Frisco for a fourth straight year.

You can follow Daniel "Pinto" Gunderson on Twitter at @pintoKFGO or friend him on Facebook. You can hear him on his weekly podcast show on kfgo.com, 740thefan.com or on iTunes called “The Pinto and White Shadow Show.” Pinto is a radio producer within the Midwest Communications-Fargo company.