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Unleashing Tasmanian Crockett

by Dan Gunderson

The press had gathered in the North Dakota State University football team meeting room in the basement of the Fargodome for the post-game press conference. The Bison had just won another game in 2013.

These pressers are usually uneventful. Outside of the occasional coach telling the media to park it, coaches and players alike tend to run through the motions and answer questions softly lobbed there way.

That was the case again until one Bison player walked in with a stuffed animal. The stuffed animal in question was the cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil. The stuffed animal's owner? John Crockett.

The NDSU running back smiled proudly as he knew that it would be a matter of time before someone asked him about his friend.

The reason he was carrying it around with him is because it was his moniker's namesake: Tazz.

"I actually got that nickname when I was in the fourth grade by a coach I was trying out for," said Crockett. "I guess it stuck."

For Crockett, the nickname is fitting of both his personality and the way he plays football.

He has a tendency to make players miss and has, on occasion, been known to spin out of disaster, before unleashing a path of flailing arms in his wake.

The senior from Totino-Grace High School out of Minneapolis has run for 2,315 yards and 20 touchdowns in two years at NDSU. He has a career average of six yard per carry and last season he ran for a career high 1,277 yards. That output was good enough for 19th best in the FCS.

And second best on his own team.

The last two seasons, Crockett has split carries with fellow running back Sam Ojuri. Ojuri ended up leading the team in 2012 and '13 in rushing yards. Ojuri has since graduated, leaving Crockett as the primary ball carrier for the Bison in 2014.

There is no question in coaches' minds that Crockett has the energy to handle this task.

"Crockett being out there is great," said head coach Chris Klieman at media day in early August. "It is always fun with John's energy."

"We've always known he has had great energy," said new offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tim Polasek. "I think it rubs off on some guys."

That energy will come in handy as the Bison expect Crockett's carries to increase.

Last year, he averaged just under 13 carriers a game. Coach Polasek expects that to be a bit higher this season.

"Typically, I would love for a tailback to be right around the 20 carry mark. I think that is just still best for production in big games down the road."

Polasek, who was at NDSU from 2006-2012 before taking a job at Northern Illinois, said that there may be some games where Crockett could get enough carries to have his yardage be closer to 200 than the 85 he averaged a game in 2013.

The most yards Crockett has ever rushed for in a game is 195, a mark he reached in last year's FCS Semi-Final playoff game against the University of New Hampshire on only 13 carries.

Not that Crockett is all that concerned about his stats. He has just one personal goal this season.

"Win the fourth national championship. That's about it."

Moving on.

Health and stamina, two things that will be of high importance to the Bison as they have the potential to play the most games in school history in 2014, are always of concern when it comes to a running back. They take the most direct contact of any offensive skill player on the field.

Polasek did indicate that physically, he feels Crockett is different than when he left in 2012.

"He's bigger, stronger, faster," said Polasek. "Where his body is at now, compared to where it was at when I left, he has a little more power there."

Crockett has found himself in this situation not only through the graduation of Ojuri but also because the depth behind him is inexperienced.

Two sophomores, King Frazier and Chase Morlock, are competing for the number two spot on the depth chart. NDSU is still unsure as to what both of these backs have to offer.

When asked at his media day press conference about the running backs playing time, coach Klieman said Crockett will be taking the bulk of the carries "until those guys come up more to speed."

"We have to see what Chase can do. We have to see what King can do because they give us a little bit different look," said Klieman.

Being number one on the depth chart doesn't mean a change in approach for Crockett.

"Really no mindset. Just another game," said Crockett. "I guess I just get to go out there first this time."

This doesn't mean Crockett won't be compared to other players at his position in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Two running backs in particular, David Johnson of the University of Northern Iowa and Zach Zenner of South Dakota State University, have already received numerous pre-season accolades.

Looking for differences between the three may go deeper than just stats.

"I'd say I might play with more heart than those guys," said Crockett. "I love the game so much, it comes right through me. I can't control myself on game days."

Crockett has longed been hailed as one of the team's most talented offensive players, but has yet to be the feature player at his own position. Now, the opportunity is here.

He will be the player to set the tone offensively and the player the team looks at to close out games.

The time has finally come to see what John "Tazz" Crockett can do when he is unleashed.

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.