Feature photo by Joe Kerlin
The grind never ends for college football coaches. Coming off a 2016 season when North Dakota State’s run of national titles ended, the Bison coaches went right to work on the 2017 edition of NDSU football. The work was rewarded after fighting through a season of adversity and reclaiming the FCS throne. We sat down with each position coach and asked what this season meant to them.
Conor Riley, Offensive Line Coach
Photos by Darren Gibbins
The NDSU offensive line is the heart and soul of the Bison. From gritty seniors like Austin Kuhnert and Bryce Messner to an established presence like Colin Conner to newcomers like Tanner Volson and Zack Johnson, the big boys paved the way for 272.2 rushing yards per game, which ranked No. 4 in the FCS.
Bison Illustrated: When you hear the name Austin Kuhnert, what’s the first couple of things that come to mind?
Conor Riley: “Tough kid. Hard working. Those would be the two things that really stand out with him. What you see on Saturday afternoons is the exact same things we see Monday-Thursday. He does everything the right way on the football field. He prepares the right way and it translates into the game.”
BI: JMU’s defensive line was deservedly hyped up. How much did you challenge your group leading up to Frisco?
CR: “They knew after playing them a year ago what kind of skill set they have from an athletic standpoint. They also knew how physical they were. So over the course of the three weeks, there were certainly some challenges going into it and they recognized those challenges.”
BI: What does this national title mean to you?
CR: “It’s fantastic. So happy for the kids. I know a year ago, a lot of guys on the team felt terrible for that senior class because the people in that class knew nothing but finishing the season with a win, which is quite remarkable. So for these guys to work to this point, to overcome the adversity we had and to still find themselves on top is pretty special.”
Tyler Roehl, Fullbacks/Tight Ends Couch
The definition of Bison Pride can be summed up by looking at what the fullbacks and tight ends do for the NDSU offense. A run-first team relies on the offensive line with the “Crew Chiefs” playing an equal role. Two seniors, Jeff Illies and Connor Wentz, led the group and were dual-threat tight ends in the run game and pass game. They combined for 32 catches for 492 yards and eight touchdowns.
How will you remember this group of national champions at your position group?
“The first word that comes to mind is unselfish. Those two seniors truly led the underclassmen and brought them along. They had a workman-type attitude and a willingness to do the dirty work and put in the extra time and effort to bring this team forward.”
What was it like seeing all your former teammates in Frisco?
“Every year is so special. It really means a lot not only to me but to the staff and players. As coaches, throughout the recruiting process, we talk about the tradition and having the support of former players. But for them to truly see that on the field on that Friday is really a unique environment.”
What does this national title mean to you?
“Gosh, they’re all extremely hard. Every single one of them. It’s really hard to do and you can’t take any of them for granted. It’s special because being here for my fourth year, truly seeing the hard work out of each of us coaches and then coming together as a team. Having Connor and Jeff for four years and then all that hard work you’ve done together and it all culminates into a national title, it’s really special.”
RELATED: Read returning players’ reactions from their trip back to Frisco.
SUBSCRIBE TO BISON ILLUSTRATED
Get 12 issues delivered to your door for only $29.99. Stay up to date with the latest in Bison Athletics with a Bison Illustrated subscription! This monthly magazine showcases the latest news in NDSU Sports with exclusive interviews, original game photos, and insightful writing. Subscribe today!