Chris Klieman will need to replace an assistant coach on his staff for the second straight offseason, with Atif Austin leaving Fargo for the New England Patriots. Austin is taking the assistant running backs coach with the Patriots after four years with the Bison. Austin was an original hire by Klieman when he took over the head coaching job in 2014, coming from Stetson University in Florida and a previous stop at Northern Iowa.
Austin made a memorable impact during his time in Fargo, beginning with his development of the wide receivers, namely RJ Urzendowski and Darrius Shepherd. Urzendowski arrived in Fargo the same time that Austin did, and Austin told me early on during fall camp in 2014 that there was no way that NDSU would be able to redshirt him.
Perhaps the biggest contribution that Austin made in his time in Fargo was his recruitment of high school players in the state of Florida. NDSU had started to make its way into the Sunshine State before Austin had arrived, with Tre Dempsey, Connor Wentz and Chris Board coming to Fargo but Austin (a Tarpon Springs native) took it to another level. It began in 2015 with the signing of Bruce Anderson, a story I detailed that December on WDAY.
Anderson of course went off to a sensational freshman year and the rest is history. But the door was now open to Florida. It exploded last year with three signees, Josh Hayes, Holden Hotchkiss and Christian Watson. Hayes appears to be a future standout in the making after his performance in the national title game in January, while Watson and Hotchkiss each have high expectations. This past recruiting class had even more with four players signing, Zach Mathis, Tony Pierce, Juanye Tillman and Kenneth Channelle. I asked Klieman if the next wide receivers coach will need to have a connection to Florida, he said not necessarily, that the ability to connect with recruits is essential no matter what place they’re heading to.
For Austin, this is an opportunity he’s been looking for a couple of seasons. I did a story on his internship work he did with the Baltimore Ravens two years ago, and now he gets a chance to work with the best in the NFL. His work in Fargo was impressive, not only from his coaching style to his ability to recruit. This is a big hire for Klieman to fill, especially at a position where NDSU has some questions heading into 2018. Shepherd is the only known quantity coming back this fall. Dimitri Williams has shown value at times, but not consistently. Dallas Freeman and Desmond Cain saw some reps last season, but will be counted on this season. It also opens the door for Watson, Channelle and Mathis to see the field if they can pick up the playbook. A new coach will be an added challenge there.