« Pinto's Points

Pinto's Pre-Season Preview: The 2014 Bison Football Team

by Dan Gunderson

In the fifth installment of Pinto's Pre-Season Preview, I will break down both the offense and defense of the North Dakota State University Bison football team.. I will go position by position, talk about the strengths and weaknesses and give each position a grade.

Make sure and check out the last four installments of Pinto's Pre-Season Preview as we move towards NDSU's season opener in Ames, Iowa against Iowa State University on August 30.

July 25: They Hold The Keys

August 1: Headaches

August 8: High Importance

August 15: Predictions

We start with the offense for the Bison. This aspect of the team contains the most unknowns. We don't know how good Carson Wentz, the new quarterback, will be. We don't know how the new starting offensive lineman will perform. We don't know how running back John Crockett will handle the new workload.

What we do know is that NDSU's offense returns one of the best deep threats at receiver, Zach Vraa, in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. We do know that the fullback and tight end position for NDSU will be as solid as ever. We also know that the return game for the Bison will be in good hands with Crockett and Christian Dudzik.

Let's start with the the men in the trenches.

Offensive Line

No question this is the lifeblood of Bison football. The college game, and even the NFL, has gone away from the ground and pound and has embraced the up-tempo, spread offenses. Not NDSU.

They want to impose their will on you for four quarters. And it has worked. Go back and ask any opponent from the FCS Playoffs the last three years and they will tell you how physical NDSU's offensive line has been and how worn down they were at the end of the game.

NDSU has to replace four offensive lineman from last year's team. Inexperience and youth will be the biggest problems NDSU could encounter during the early parts of 2014. I say early because once this group plays four games together, those two excuses go out the window.

Joe Haeg is the lone returning starter and will be taking over for Billy Turner at left tackle. The other starters, Jesse Hinz, Landon Lechler, Jack Planters and Adam Schueller, are all fairly new starters.

NDSU has done a great job of producing solid offensive line after solid offensive line. However, this much turnover is new for the Bison and there may be some issues to begin the season. After the first four games, I expect the unit to gel and become dominant down the road.

Grade: B

Wide Reciever/Tight End

When I look at the tight ends for NDSU, they have two jobs. Block and catch touchdowns. NDSU's offense does not use the tight end much before the 20-yard-line. Kevin Vaadeland, the super SUPER senior tight end for the Bison, caught all of 20 passes last season. Of those 20 catches, eight went for touchdowns.

The Bison don't have a ton of experience (noticing a trend here) behind Vaadeland. Lucas Albers is a junior and then it is a slew of redshirt and true freshman behind him. I would love to see NDSU use their tight ends more in the passing game, but that is not Vaadeland's strength. He is an extension of the offensive line, essentially, which has worked just fine for NDSU with previous tight ends.

The receivers are where the tight ends will be in a year from now. A couple of seniors, Vraa and Trevor Gebhart, will be your top two receivers. Past those two, we are just waiting to see who can step up and deliver.

The sophomores, Eric Perkins, Demitrius Grey, Carey Woods and DeSean Warren, will need to step up in order to not get overtaken by a solid freshman class of receivers. In fact, it has been reported by Dom Izzo and Jeff Kolpack that head coach Chris Klieman has stated he intends to pull the redshirt of wide out R.J. Urzendowski.

Either Urzendowski is playing so well in practice that he can't be ignored or the sophomores play has been so underwhelming, coach Klieman has had no choice but to let Urzendowski play right away. It might be both.

We can't forget how big of a contribution Ryan Smith made last season for the Bison and replacing him will not be easy. The Bison have moved Darius Anderson, a running back who was the leading rusher for the Bison in the Spring Game this year, to wide receiver to see how he will work out in a slot position.

If the sophomores and freshmen can step up and start to play to their potential, this will be a deep group at both wide receiver and tight end.

Grade: B

Running/Full Back

This the strength of the offense. Andrew Bonnet, a junior full back from Council Bluffs, Iowa, is a pre-season first-team Missouri Valley Football Conference pick. Crockett is finally the primary ball carrier after splitting carries the last two years with Sam Ojuri.

NDSU wants to run the ball and what better two then Bonnet and Crockett to lead the way.

Depth will be a question but the Bison feel confident in King Frazier and Chase Morlock backing up Crockett at running back. We will also see Jedre Cyr come in from time to time to help spell Bonnet.

Expect Bonnet to lead the way for Crockett to have a stellar year.

Grade: A+

Quarterback

When you ask people how they believe NDSU's new starting quarterback will play in 2014, you get a mixed review. He will either be thee worst quarterback in NDSU history, ultimately leading to their demise as a program or he will be better than Brock Jensen and Steve Walker.

I think it will be somewhere in-between those extremes and that is what you can hope for as Bison fans. You don't need Wentz to be unreal but you need him to be competent. It will take some time for Wentz to become comfortable as a starter but I don't foresee him being a train wreck week one.

The physical tools are there for Wentz. He possess a strong arm and mobility to go along with his 6'6", 231 pound frame. He was also just voted by his teammates to be one of six NDSU captains in 2014. If nothing else, that speaks to how the players view him as a leader for the team.

Everything being said about Wentz from coaches has been positive but you'd expect that. I will hold stronger judgement on him until after his first four games this season. For now, it appears NDSU is on the right track.

Grade: B

Kicking/Returner

The kicking game will be just fine with Adam Keller, an All-MVFC First-Team performer last season. The return game will be excellent with Crockett and Dudzik returning kicks and Dudzik returning punts.

Did you know that Dudzik led the team in punt return yards last season, including two returns for touchdowns? Yeah. Me either.

The special teams will be just fine for NDSU, which will lead to great field position for the Bison and a high chance of turning drives into points via the field goal.

Grade: A+

Now, to the defense...

Defensive Line

Much like the offensive line, the defensive line has the most unknowns. Kyle Emanuel is the only returning starter. Mike Hardie and Brian Schaetz played last year as well and should do an admirable job as starters.

However, they are not Cole Jirik and Leevon Perry. It will be tough to replace the production NDSU had with those two players and Ryan Drevlow.

The Bison will be relying on the back-ups to provide the same type of relief NDSU had with last year's back-ups. The person I am the most excited to watch this year on the defensive line is Nate Tanguay. The redshirt freshman will be the starting defensive tackle for NDSU.

Production from the back-ups will be the key to whether or not this unit is good. The starters need to stay fresh if NDSU plans on having another long, playoff run.

Grade: B+

Linebacker

We know who the starters are going to be. Travis Beck, Carlton Littlejohn and Esley Thorton. That is not what gets me wide-eyed about this group. It is the back-ups that make me believe this group will be dominant in 2014.

NDSU has longed for depth at linebacker for years and it looks as if they have finally achieved it. Talking with Grant Olson this pre-season, he is high on two linebackers, Nick DeLuca and Pierre Gee-Tucker.

Both play the middle linebacker position but expect them to have an impact on special teams as well. You also have Bo Liekhus and MJ Stumpf as back-ups on the outside. It sounds as if Stumpf has made great strides this off-season.

All of these players are sophomores, meaning the best is yet to come with the group. They will see time this year and will have a hand on defense as well as special teams. Remember these names people. I believe they are going to be good.

Grade: A

Defensive Secondary

CJ Smith, the returning cornerback, will be an All-MVFC first-team player in 2014. I felt like he should have been in 2013. That is how good I think Smith will be for the Bison. A shutdown corner who played with great instinct and great passion last season.

The other corner, Jordan Champion, will be the one who will get challenged by teams. Zach Colvin, his back-up on the depth chart, may see some time as well, especially if Champion slips. That side of the field is the one concern.

The safeties, Dudzik and Colten Heagle, need an entire article dedicated to them. I'll try to tell you how good they are in a paragraph.

With Dudzik's ability to cover and Heagle's ability to ruin your world with his physicality, these two are the best safety duo in the nation. They make this secondary one of the best in the FCS.

Grade: A

Special Teams

NDSU has one of the best punter's in the nation in Ben LeCompte and a coverage team comprised of players like Chris Board and DeLuca. Not that NDSU needs really solid tacklers on this special teams unit.

Here is how good LeCompte was last year. In 52 punts, 25 of which pinned teams inside their own 20-yard-line, only eight of them were returned by opponents. Eight for a total of 21 yards. That is unreal. You couldn't do that in a video game if you tried.

Grade: A+

Overall Team Grade: A

Depth and the not entirely sure how Wentz will play are the biggest issues with the team. Obviously the offensive line will be something to watch for but I have confidence they will be just fine by Week 4.

The starters on this team are just as good as they were last year, outside of a couple positions. I see NDSU making the playoffs for a fifth straight year, by way of winning a conference title.

Record Prediction: 10-2

You can follow Daniel "Pinto" Gunderson on Twitter at @pintoKFGO or friend him on Facebook. You can hear him on his weekly sports talk show on 740 The Fan and 740thefan.com called Fan Sports Saturday from 8-10 a.m. Pinto is a radio producer and talk show host within the Midwest Communications-Fargo company.