*The press conference these quotes are taken from was held on Wednesday, August 10. *Quotes have been edited for conciseness
The Big Picture
We have some [players] that are ready to have a great senior year right now and we have some that are just getting ready to make their mark and find their roles on this football team. We have a number of returning people, and anytime you have a contingent of returning starters and players that have played significant time, that probably takes the pressure off of you a little bit as a coach, but we’re still trying to strive and be better and find that next set of names. That’s what has been really important about this fall camp, is finding out who the critical backups are that are going to play a significant amount of time on special times as well as rotations on defense and the plethora of personnel groupings we use on offense. So far, there have been a few names that have elevated themselves.
On The Offense
I feel like we have as much depth on the offensive line as we’ve probably had in the last couple of years. I want to say we have nine young men that can help us win ballgames and they’re excited about coming back into it. We’ve got nine of our top 10 coming back. And what I’m really excited about is the improvements I’ve seen with numbers 6, 7, 8 and 9— they are different. Hunter Poncius, Jake Rock and Brandon Westberg continue to get better. The reps that they’ve had over the course of the last year and a half have been critical in their development. Now we are starting to reach some of the benefits of that.
Cam Miller has done an outstanding job. We challenged him after spring ball— the thing that he needed to continue to do from the quarterback position was be that leader that we all have grown accustomed to with the quarterback position in NDSU. And he’s done exactly that. He was drinking out of a firehose his first two seasons here. He got thrown into the mix right away and did an excellent job helping us win a national championship in 2021. He now has taken the next step in his leadership role as far as being able to have those constructive conversations with his teammates, and getting everyone on the same page. He’s a great communicator in the huddle, a great communicator in meetings. … It’s critical to have that leadership and quarterback room.
We’ve got a ton of depth at running back right now. We need to get a couple of guys completely healed up. Jalen Bussey is back from an injury that he had a year ago. Hunter Luepke kind of fulfills a dual role for us as a tight end/fullback/ running back. But we really feel excited about Barika Kpeenu, a young man from West Fargo that’s really starting to show us why he had offers from power five schools late in the process. Kobe Johnson, I think, is the strongest version of himself that he has been here in the two, three years that he’s been here. Owen Johnson got moved over from wide receiver to running back and is doing an excellent job. We still have to get TaMerik Williams healthy. TK Marshall is doing an outstanding job. There are bodies there that can help us win especially when you’re a line of scrimmage-oriented football team like we are.
At the wide receiver position, there are about six names that jumped out to me: Braylon Henderson, DJ Hart, RaJa Nelson [and Jake Lippe who] is back from a low back injury and has now started to kind of show himself getting back into that role that he was in kind of post-spring before he had this big injury that set him back. Phoenix Sproles is practicing every day and being a great leader on and off the football field, doing the things that we all expect him to do being involved in our offense. Tyler Terhark and Giancarlo Volpentesta are both doing a really good job of finding a role: is it playing in 22 personnel? Is it cracking safeties? Is it making the tough catch across the middle? We may not have that marquee name at that position but we feel like any of these young men can help us continue to be successful at the wide receiver position.
At tight end, Noah Gindorff is currently out of practice right now and will be brought back in later in the fall camp. With him being out and opening up some reps, it has expedited the learning curve for guys like Joe Stoffel, Finn Diggins, Jacob Streit and Carson Williams, who is a transfer from the University of Buffalo and has a brother that plays for us on the defensive side of the ball. And then you have Hunter Brozio and Logan Hofstedt who kind of assume that dual role of off-the-ball ‘U’ fullback and on-the-ball tight end. It’s great when guys can have multiple roles because it creates greater depth for our football team.
On The Defense
On the defensive side, there are some new names and some new faces along the defensive line. The Mostaert brothers are right where they need to be. Both are productive and both are playing football for us. I’ve told you guys before, sometimes some of the most heated arguments in practice are the Mostaert brothers going at one another. Spencer Waege is kind of on a rep count right now but doing a great job and is participating in all of the indy and multiple team sessions. When you talk about a 6’ 5’’, 280 lb kid, he has worked extremely hard to put himself in as good a shape as possible. Jake Kava, Dylan Hendricks, Tony Pierce: expect a lot of big things out of Tony this year. He’s a veteran player who has played a lot of football games. He needs to continue to do a better job of finishing at football. Loshiaka Roques put on 10 pounds. He’s a much stronger, much more physical presence, especially at the six technique lined up over a tight end. Javier Derritt and Jaxon Duttenhefer are two young men that are going to have to help us maintain control of the line of scrimmage, those A’s and B gaps. Javier, many of you may remember late last year’s playoff run, he gave us a ton of valuable reps. He made some big plays and forced some throws.
Our DBs are as deep as maybe we’ve ever been. When you talk about the number of corners, we have four or five corners that can play for us. And when I say play, they could win us ballgames. And then you have two returning six-year starting safeties [Michael Tutsie and Dawson Weber], both all-conference caliber kids, probably both All-American type kids. And behind them you have Dom Jones, Ryan Jones, Reggie King, Ty Satter. Dom Jones has played a lot of football for us over the course of the last couple of years. To have him in that role is extremely valuable. It gives us some flexibilities in packages, especially as we get started to sub in and we start seeing some nickel situations, and when we start to do some unique things in maybe third down or passing situations.
Linebacker is probably the most unique position we have right now. It’s probably the most wide-open spot. I would be uncomfortable, today, naming a starter at the mike linebacker position. Luke Weerts and Nick Kubitz have done a great job to this point, but I just don’t feel like one of them has separated themselves from either. I think competition is going to breed both of them having to play their best football at NDSU in the next couple of weeks. James Kaczor is back healthy. You’re seeing some explosiveness and things that we’ve missed over the last year or so with him going back and forth with his injury. Julian Wlodarczyk getting moved to the sam position has been a positive move for our defense, for our defensive staff and also for Julian in the linebacker room. He brings veteran experience. He has played a lot on special teams and in that backup role. He has had a lot of experience in the dome and traveling and I think that’s valuable especially when you look at Oscar Benson and Enock Sibomana being the backups at that spot right now. And then Logan Kopp is a really good football player. He’s a young man out of Lindbergh High School in St. Louis and he just gets it. … When you have those guys, it’s fun to watch. You don’t always count on them, but when you see one of these types of players that just understands the game at a different level, it’s fun to coach them and see how fast you can move the process along. Logan is one of those young men.
Q&A With The Media
Have you been able to identify what the identity of this team is going to be?
I think going into it, I’ll have a little bit of an idea of what our identity will be. I think, more importantly, I want to see how we can adjust and expand on that identity. We were extremely efficient in the pass game a year ago. I still want those things. I want to continue to figure out how we can utilize some wide receivers in the run game and how we can utilize multiple bodies on defense. I think we still have a chance to be good at running the football and stopping the run and being really good on special teams, but we’ve got some work to do.
Talking about NIL stuff a little bit, we’ve kind of seen a growth here locally. Some are using their social media following. We’ve seen a lot of mattress commercials with Cam Miller. How have you kind of seen it grow here locally?
I think what you’re seeing here locally, in the Fargo-Moorhead area, is probably what the rule was intended to be. These young men are fulfilling an obligation. They’re providing companies A, B and C: with, maybe it’s followers, maybe it’s advertising, maybe it’s commercial, which Cam is now famous in the team room for that commercial. But that’s how I saw the rule originally: you have to provide these companies or these people who want to provide the NIL with something. It was meritbased. You get this, you have to provide something. And unfortunately, and again, I’m speaking for Matt Entz— nobody else, I get the sense that this has become not merit-based, but more incentive-based. At the same time, we have to continue to grow.
We’re an extremely, I think at times, conservative athletic department, which I think is good. We’re not going to make any rash decisions. But it’s not 2018 anymore, it’s 2022. Things have changed. There’s the transfer portal, conference, realignment — I don’t know if we can just sit here and say we’re gonna ignore it. And it’s good because it won’t go away. And my job is to make sure I protect this program and put the best product on the field. If that means we need to expand on NIL in some way, then we probably need to do some research and start looking into that.
Do you get the sense of maturity level on this team yet to handle all of the expectations?
I think part of that is we don’t talk too much about expectations except with our senior class. I don’t think we’ve had a conversation in the team room about winning a football game. We talk about getting better every day. I think it starts with our coaches and starts with our support people trying to avoid the buzz a little bit. The buzz is great. The buzz is exciting. It’s what the people in this room want to talk about. But for an 18-year-old man to be thrown into a situation where they have to execute for us, sometimes that’s not the best thing. We talk early in fall camp about how we’re going to worry about every day as the most important thing. As you start looking too far ahead, that’s when anxiety gets critical.
Do you ever hear the word ‘Frisco’ when you’re in fall camp?
Never, unless it’s one of our offensive linemen talking about a burger at Hardee’s. No one ever talks about it. They talk about getting better that day.
You and a few others on your staff are the only ones that have experienced an FBS game. How do you approach that with Arizona looming? I know it’s not game one but it’s there on the schedule.
As you remember, when we played Iowa, it was game three. You can’t really make any adjustments too much because you have fall camp and then preparations for game one and game two. What you’d like to think, and I think, is that we do an excellent job with the preparation for fall camp, and it allows us to be as competitive as you can be. We put in a lot of offense and defense in fall camp that isn’t necessarily for game one. But the retention is there for our players for when we may bring it back for games three or four or five or six or maybe game 11. But we still have to have a base before we install in season. We really have not had any conversation about it right now. I made a comment to our players that I think what’s exciting is that we have three non-conference games. We have three new opponents we have not played, and none of these players have played. So, that to me, is exciting.
How is Cole Payton settling in and what can we expect from him? I know he got very limited action last year.
Cole has done a great job. He continues to learn and refine. He has a quarterback coach in the country in Randy Hedberg. He has a tremendous leader in that room in Cam Miller. So in Cole, I think you see a very comfortable player out there. A guy who can control the huddle. A guy who can make calls at the line of scrimmage and get us in and out of things and change cadences. That is what’s exciting for me. As far as the game plan, we’ve only scratched the surface right now. It’s too early to say if we’ll go back to last year and have multiple quarterbacks on the field. I think there are a lot of things that go into that decision-making. But it is always nice to feel after six days, and six days only, that we have a young man who is extremely talented at that backup spot.
You said the offensive line is nine deep. Would you ever play nine offensive linemen in a game or would the rotation be shorter than that?
I think the offensive line is a little bit unique. For one, there isn’t a position group for our football team that emulates what we want to be about more than they do. I think those five guys will kind of see that as a badge of honor that they get to wear here at NDSU. The “rams” are who we are. I think [there’s an] amount of communication that’s required to be successful on the offensive line, it doesn’t matter if it’s an ace to the mike or backside swap or slip, they are always in conversation and communication. Presnap, and you don’t want [too much communication] or sometimes monkey with that or overthink it. If we have a really good five out there, let’s leave it. Now, the one area you’ve seen us use it is the “ogre package” where we dress up a sixth offensive lineman as a tight end to get an extra offensive lineman out on the field. I think you’ll still continue to see that down the road during the season. I think there are a few kids that can sprinkle in here and give some guys some rest at different times but I don’t think you’ll see us wholesale change as you might on the defensive line.
The previous school column on your roster is pretty blank, is that a big deal to you?
I think it’s a big deal for players in our football team. When we recruit young men, we sit down Mom, Dad, whoever might be in their inner circle, and we talk about a vision, a plan to get your son on the football field at NDSU. Never in that plan do we talk about, “but we might rate, in a transfer from university x, y, z.” We feel like we do a tremendous job, our staff, our strength staff, our nutrition staff and the medical staff of developing football players. I’m not ignoring the transfer portal, we’ve used it slightly and we’re going to continue to use it at a conservative pace. It has to be the right person from the right place at the right time. We felt like we had a pretty good group coming back and there was no need to rock the locker room or the team.
Have you had to turn away people that want to transfer here?
You need to talk to Ean [Deno] about the number of emails he gets. And/ or phone calls we get from so and so’s trainer. Seldom do I ever get a phone call from a coach.
Take one position. Quincy is going to Temple. Did you have quarterbacks calling you after that?
No, because I think they saw the depth of the room already. Sometimes just seeing that the starter is only a sophomore right now eligibility-wise, kids think this might not be a great situation [to come to earn playing time].
We’re a ways away now from the spring season, but do you think those battle reps for guys like Dom Jones, Cam Miller and Grey Zabel pay off now in the fall of ‘22
I think so. If you look at our depth chart, our board in our office in our staff room, you see a ton of third-year guys, that group, that are all over the depth chart. That sophomore class, eligibility-wise, is about 30 because that group and the class behind them are now all packed into one. You’re seeing the benefits of painstakingly going through the spring and moving people around from position to position, putting people off the grass that maybe have a limited experience or limited call card.
You said you weren’t ready to name a starter at the mike position but competition ramps up over these next few weeks. What’re you looking for to name a starter?
Well, communication has to be a critical piece. The mike linebacker and strong safety in our defense are extensions of our coaching staff. They need to be able to process information and get the right information communicated to the rest of the team. We will have some controlled tackling scenarios coming up. So, being able to get people on the grass and making plays, that’s critical. We have a process for daily grading and that process has already started, but it’s too close for us to make a decision right now. And there could be situations where you see both of them in the game. But again, I realize that when you’re 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, being a starter is always a priority.
How many guys do you have lined up for punt returns and kick returns?
Punt returns, we’re pretty fortunate that everyone’s back at that position. You have Jayden Price who had some explosive plays. Braylon Henderson had some explosive plays for us. I think there are some young kids too, that if we need them, it’d be good to have them return. We haven’t done any punt returns in the Dome yet. Everything’s been outside right now. When we catch punts in the Dome, that always throws some young guys for a loop because they’re just looking up into a black ceiling trying to find a ball. It’s just a little bit different returning punts in there. I think the kick return specialist [candidates are] DJ Hart, RaJa Nelson and Kobe Johnson, who, in 2019, had a 99-yard kickoff return against Youngstown. We have some people back there that are going to do a tremendous job and our coaches do an outstanding job of putting together great schemes that fit our personnel.
Have you named a starting kicker?
We are still having a competition between Griffin Crosa and Will Cardinal. Kaedin Steindorf is our punter.
How has competition in camp been so far? Has it stayed healthy?
It’s been really good. Sometimes the competition swells and there’s an incident at practice that we have to get broken up and then we get back to the huddles and go again. There are 22 starters on offense and defense and 44 on special teams. That’s the carrot, that’s the nugget that we throw out there. And we routinely talk about guys like Chris Board, who’s probably going to be a starting linebacker for the Detroit Lions this year. He was a special teams player here. To me, that’s where he made his mark. Jaxon Brown was a player who didn’t play a ton of reps for us defensively but was a special teams All-American for us. And there’s Nick DeLuca, who is working for us now as a strength and conditioning guy, was a special teams guy as a first-year player with us.
How important are those player-to-player relationships, especially at a position like safety where Dawson and Michael have been together for so long?
I think those two have a brotherly relationship. They came in together. They were both knuckleheads together early in their careers. Probably any gray hair I have were due to Dawson and Tut. Both are super smart football players. One is from Indianapolis and one is from California. You kind of meet in the middle and Bison football is the thing that brings you together. But they’re awesome. They’re awesome families. It’s going to be fun to see those guys play together because they’re each other’s biggest fans.