Photo By Tim Sanger/NDSU Athletics
It doesn’t matter whether it’s Coach Entz or men’s basketball Coach Dave Richman talking, the message is often the same as it pertains to player personnel. “A developmental program based on retention.” Both teams are almost exclusively made up of high school senior-recruits, most of whom redshirt.
The list of these guys is extremely long. AJ Jacobson, Taylor Braun, Brock Jensen, Easton Stick, Trey Lance, Marcus Williams, even guys like Carson Wentz and Ben Woodside all spent a year on campus getting comfortable with their academic situation and getting physically prepared for Division I competition. It’s (obviously) advantageous to have 22, 23, and sometimes even 24-year-old men on a college team.
“Trading your least productive season for your most productive season.”
The reasoning in football is obvious. Football is a demanding sport. Specifically, the Missouri Valley Football Conference is demanding. So is the way that North Dakota State generally schedules their non-conference opponents. It’s physically taxing.
Bison football players specifically have a key first year with Assistant AD for Athletic Performance Jim Kramer. Kramer is legendary for his nutritional requirements and his training regiments. The bodies of young athletes are quite literally transformed.
That first year on campus makes what Bison freshman running back Kobe Johnson is doing extremely rare, though not unheard of. As Coach Entz would say “the further away you are from the ball at the start of the play, the better chance you have (to play) early.”
Kobe’s not the first running back in the recent history of NDSU Football to have to play right away, either. Bruce Anderson, Chase Morlock and Seth Wilson have all contributed right away. Normal? Maybe not. Unheard of? Not really, either.
What makes Kobe Johnson so rare, outside of his early production, is his upbringing. You see, Kobe Johnson is from Discovery High School in Lawrenceville, Ga. Johnson, along with quarterback Zeb Noland and defensive back Dom Jones are a trio of Georgians, but they’re the first Georgians on NDSU’s roster since 2009.
So how did that happen? Defensive ends coach Buddha Williams, that’s how. Williams was tasked with recruiting Gwinnett County in Georiga. Gwinnett is northeast of Atlanta, in a football hotbed, serviced normally by Georgia and Georgia Tech, but as Bison fans have seen, the SEC and ACC don’t get every talented kid (see Anderson, Bruce, Dempsey, Tre, and Watson, Christian).
“When I interviewed for the job, that was one of the questions,” said Williams. “What are the different areas that I had recruited in the past? I happened to recruit Georgia for one season in my first year ever coaching college football. I wouldn’t say I have the expertise, or that’s my major area of recruiting, I just went down there one time. Coach Entz and coach Klieman thought it’d be a great idea to get back into the Georgia area.”
The first year was a bit of a swing and a miss. Williams and the Bison had no signees from Georgia in 2018. “My first year, it was the whole (of) Atlanta. Then the following year, I really focused in on Gwinnett County. After building relationships down there, people that we had relationships with steered me there. 20 minutes from Athens, outside of the city. It’s pretty much a city of its own. The first year was about getting my feet wet and building relationships. I needed to build relationships with the coaches and get familiar with the area as a whole staff.”
“It’s funny how it all kinda happened, we were recruiting Dom Jones, and his head coach actually brought Kobe’s name up. ‘Hey man, you got time to check out this kid’,” says Williams. “If you’re familiar with Georgia recruiting, every coach is like that. It’s not necessarily their guy at their school. They’re willing to help any player at a rival school, any school down the street. Whatever’s best for the kids. That was the case for Kobe. A coach that had to try to defend him, played against him, recommended him to me. Not a lot of college coaches know about (Discovery). He was a diamond in the rough, every head coach in Gwinnett County was raving about this kid and was shocked that he didn’t have a lot going on.”
Coach Williams and (now) offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl were heavily involved in Johnson’s recruiting. Roehl even put up a little highlight tape of his own play at North Dakota State. “Yup, the 200—-whatever explosives (plays), whatever he’s always talking about.”
“I would say that I was (underrecruited), but my years of high school didn’t go as I planned. I didn’t play to my best ability. Being undersized you have to be dynamic whenever you’re on the field, and I wasn’t (all the time),” Johnson said. “I didn’t hear from (NDSU) until December. Coach Buddha hit me up, and that was the first time I’d heard of them. That was the first time meeting him. They introduced me and told me a little about NDSU, then in January he and coach Roehl came down together. I went on my official in February, the weekend before signing day, and I gave my commitment on my visit.”
The Bison had barely heard of Kobe, and Kobe had barely heard of the Bison. Johnson hadn’t even watched NDSU in the National Championship game in January on TV.
It didn’t take Johnson long to make an impression, though. “When I got on campus, I had to gain weight. They made that clear. I didn’t realize that I would be part of the offensive scheme until week one, and then after week one. I had an idea that I might get reps towards the end of the game, but when we played UND I played in the first half. That was different.”
Things got even more serious in Delaware, when NDSU sent Johnson in for their first carry at the goal line, during the first quarter. It was a signal to Johnson, to the fans, and to the program that Johnson wasn’t going to use the four-game rule this year, he was going to play. “It was amazing for me. When Ty [Brooks] broke that run to get to the red zone, then came off and they told me to go in, and not Adam [Cofield]. Woah, they’re sending me in. That trust in me to get the job done, that means a lot.”
“You could kinda see it during camp, having to defend against him as a defensive coach you could see how different he is. How mature, that young, they were gonna find snaps for him,” said coach Williams.
Johnson has been a major part of the rushing offense. North Dakota State has their most balanced attack in years. The Bison have (as of this writing through the UC Davis game) already thrown the ball to 15 players, and let nine players run the football. Johnson has 196 rushing yards, good enough for third on the team behind Brooks and Lance.
Don’t expect the Georgia pipeline to shut down any time soon, either. “It’s huge man. Not just because of how well known Kobe was as a player, but he stuck at one school for all four years. He didn’t think about transferring to a bigger high school to get recruited, he made a name for himself just for his body of work as a player. Now, him actually coming here and having immediate success, it’s going to help us out tremendously in that area,” said Williams.
Kobe’s situation is rare for a number of reasons. He’s not from the normal recruiting footprint. He’s not 5-foot-11, 190 pounds. He’s not redshirting. He’s not your average young Bison. It’s likely best to use a different descriptor: special.