« Pinto's Points

Replacing The Greats

by Dan Gunderson

The North Dakota State University Bison football team has enjoyed a long stretch of amazing weather to open up fall practice. Tuesday was no different as the early morning sun shined down on NDSU players and coaches.

You really could not have asked for better weather conditions. For a team transitioning between coaching eras, you want the least amount of distractions possible. When weather doesn't mess with your routine, transition can go more smoothly.

With that transition comes new players who will have to step in to new roles. Roles they are unaccustomed to. There are several of these players practicing for the Bison.

I was trying to pay attention to two players in particular as I walked around practice. CJ Smith, a junior defensive back, and Joe Haeg, a junior offensive lineman.

Why these two players? It is not so much the position they are playing but the players they are replacing.

Joe Haeg is moving over to left tackle this season to replace Turner. He played mainly at right tackle last season. CJ Smith is now the team's number one corner after playing on the opposite side of Marcus Williams last year.

We all know the type of performances Turner and Williams gave fans the last few years. They were crowd favorites and a couple of the most talented players ever to play at NDSU. Replacing players of this stature would make anybody feel immense pressure.

Haeg and Smith are not exactly anybody.

"I wouldn't say added pressure," said Haeg. "More anxious and excited to finally get out there and prove myself as a solid let tackle."

"I feel like I did good last year with [Williams] out there on the field and when he was gone I feel like I did good," said Smith. "He just gave me the tools and the knowledge to play the game."

Haeg and Smith's play would back up their confidence. It seemed that Smith was not only the more consistent corner last season, he just flat out played better than Williams.

Haeg started 14 games last season and was part of a line that gave up 18 sacks all of last season. You also have the time of possession and the rushing yards, which all could be attributed to a strong offensive line.

Last year, however, these players did this in relative obscurity. They weren't subjects of radio shows and they didn't have fans screaming their names. They were solid in doing their job and that was it.

Now, the spotlight is on them. Not only from the fans, but from the team who will look to these two as leaders. This fact doesn't go unnoticed by the juniors and Haeg likes the fact that his teammates would rely on him in that way.

"It's good pressure. Being more vocal. Being able to encourage the young guys. Be a role model for these young guys."

For Smith, the leadership role was more a natural progression due to the youth on the team.

"There is so many young guys. A lot of them looked up to me already," said Smith. "It really was just a natural role that I fell into."

Confidence in play and confidence in leadership. Two qualities that NDSU is glad to see they have in what has been cornerstone positions for them the last few years.

When I look at NDSU's roster from last season, I saw four true superstars on the team. Players that fans knew by name and number. The were Brock Jensen, Grant Olson, Turner and Williams.

A relatively new Bison fan would ask, "Who is 77?"

A true Bison fan would roll their eyes. "Billy Turner, an All-American tackle." He would go on to give the new fan Turner's bio. He could do this for not only Turner, but Jensen, Olson and Williams.

Those four players have moved on with four new ones taking their spot.

There was an early look at what NDSU would be like without Olson when he went down late in the season last year and was replaced by Carlton Littlejohn. There will be enough written about Carson Wentz, Jensen's replacement, to fill a book before his first start against Iowa State on August 30.

Those two players, Littlejohn and Wentz, are on the opposite ends of the spectrum of Bison fan's minds. Haeg and Smith fall somewhere in the middle. They don't have to worry about other people comparing them to the player they are replacing, but they still have to hold up a high level of play.

They have even tried to replicate what those before them have done.

"[Williams] can read the quarterback really good and his ball skills are really good," said Smith. "What I'm trying to work on this year is my ball skills and trying to get my head back to the ball like he does."

"I learned a lot from Billy last year," said Haeg. "I still go back in film and watch him. Watch his technique and how he goes about the game and how physical he is."

Not bad players to try and emulate.

The answer you usually get from asking how do you replace said player is pretty scripted.

"We can't replace him. We can only hope that the guy behind him can step up and do his best."

The same should be said for Haeg and Smith taking over the positions vacated by Turner and Williams. Just step up and do your best.

As long as they continue to be as solid as they were last season, Bison fans won't notice much of a difference. Just new numbers and new biographies to learn about and read off to a new crop of Bison fans.

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.