Is there such thing as a transition year for North Dakota State football, winner of a record seven FCS national championships in eight years? Probably not, though the race for the 2019 national title could be tighter. The Bison enter the season with a new head coach and 15 new starters.
But here’s why North Dakota State could still win the FCS championship again in 2019, despite the notable roster turnover.
1.) Matt Entz’s hiring should be a seamless transition
Elevating Matt Entz to head coach was a no-brainer decision after four-time champion Chris Klieman left his post to take over at Kansas State. Entz was the Bison’s defensive coordinator for five seasons, in which NDSU’s unit held opponents to 14 points per game.
With this tenure comes familiarity with the North Dakota State system and personnel. Entz’s hiring mirrors Klieman’s elevation from defensive coordinator to head coach in 2014 following Craig Bohl’s departure after a 2013 title. While the program has changed hand twice now during NDSU’s remarkable eight-year run, the winning tradition has been a constant.
“The culture is not going to change,” Klieman said following NDSU’s 2018 national title win. Matt is one of my closest friends. When I was able to get the head job here in 2013, going into 2014, he was the first phone call I made. I wanted Matt to join me because I know what kind of person he is. I knew he was a really good football coach.”
Entz will inherit just seven starters from last year’s squad. The biggest absence is at quarterback following all-time winningest FCS quarterback Easton Stick’s graduation. But Entz will have sufficient replacement options to test out, including highly touted redshirt freshman Trey Lance and Iowa State junior transfer Zeb Noland.
2.) The Bison’s running back group is still stacked, despite graduations and an injury
Leading rushers Bruce Anderson and Lance Dunn were staples of North Dakota State’s run-heavy offense for four years before graduating in 2018. But don’t expect much of a drop-off in the Bison’s rushing attack, even with their departures.
Anderson, Dunn and Stick were just three of five 500+-yard rushers for a deep Bison crew last year. Ty Brooks (750 yards, five touchdowns, four 100+-yard games) and Adam Cofield (571 yards, six touchdowns) now step into feature roles as veterans on the offense.
The Bison did suffer a blow to their depth when Seth Wilson, who may have received the bulk of 2019 carries, tore his ACL in April’s spring practices. He’s expected to miss the season, leaving sophomore Saybein Clark as the No. 3 option.
North Dakota State’s rushing attack will be crucial in easing the transition and alleviating pressure for whoever wins NDSU’s quarterback competition. The Bison have averaged at least 235 rushing yards per game for each of the past six years.
3.) NDSU still has Jabril Cox to anchor an always stout defense
Jabril Cox led the Bison in tackles as a redshirt freshman and sophomore the past two years. Now with some departures around him, the linebacker is the undisputed leader of the defense.
The junior will slide over from the Sam to the Will linebacker position, meaning he’ll be asked to cover more ground and perhaps cover opposing slot receivers more frequently. Cox, 6-3 and 233 pounds, has the pure athleticism to fit the bill.
Cox finished with four sacks and four interceptions to go along with his 91 total tackles in 2018. He’s joined by fellow senior anchors of the defense, defensive end Derrek Tuszka (7.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss) and safety James Hendricks (49 tackles, five interceptions).
North Dakota State was third among all FCS teams in scoring defense last year, allowing just 12.6 points per game. The unit will be tested early in 2019 with tough non-conference games against Delaware and UC Davis.