Saturday will mark the final regular season home game for perhaps the greatest recruiting class in NDSU football history.
Some may scoff at that and look at last year’s post in regards to the senior class that graduated which you can read here; but with a 53-3 record and three national championships and heading for a fourth conference title, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. Here’s my thoughts on the sixteen seniors that will be honored on Saturday(I know there are 17 seniors on the team, but we know that Nate Moody is redshirting and will return in 2015).
1) Zach Colvin – Colvin’s career has been marked with injuries, after he redshirted in 2010; he missed all of 2011 with a knee injury. When he’s been on the field, he’s made plays, he has two career pick 6’s (at USD, vs Ferris State) and has provided some quality depth in the secondary. More than that Colvin’s play on special teams has been huge over the past couple of years, I can think of at least four to five different times when Colvin has laid out a returner, he’s a guy that championship teams need to have.
2) Adam Schueller- Schueller is the type of lineman that coaches rave about, a glue-guy that has worked hard in the program for five years and got his moment on the big stage to start the season as Schueller started his first career game at Iowa State. He has gone on to start four other games this year at left guard for the Bison, showing that patience does pay off.
3) Zac Johnson – Johnson’s departure will bring NDSU’s number of Zac(H)(K)’s down to two since another is coming on board next season. Johnson transferred to NDSU in 2012, he sat out that season along with Darius Anderson from Valley City State. Johnson has played sparingly over the past two seasons, but has been a guy that NDSU has relied on for depth.
4) Jesse Hinz – It’s been an interesting road for Jesse Hinz in Fargo. He was thrust into the starting lineup his true freshman year after Joe Lund broke his leg, as Hinz started his first game at center against SDSU in 2010. Hinz started the remainder of that season at center, including the playoff games at Montana State and Eastern Washington. Injuries sidetracked Hinz after that, he missed all of 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle, but returned to the field last year, starting twice at center when Josh Colville was out against UNI and Missouri State. He has taken over the full-time duties at center this year and put the injury bug behind him, starting every game. He’s been troubled with holding calls or false starts from time to time; but he’s been rock solid in 2014. It should be noted that Hinz was one of the early recruits from Nebraska, joining Garret Bruhn.
5) Kevin Vaadeland – Didn’t I write this last year? It was a huge boost to Carson Wentz and the Bison offense when Vaadeland tweeted he was coming back for a sixth year of eligibility. “Grandpa” as he’s called by the team got that sixth year after he missed his entire redshirt season with a knee injury in 2010. He burst on the scene last year catching eight touchdown passes and has been a go-to-guy for Wentz on 3rd down this season. He hauled in the only touchdown in the game against Montana and added another against the Jacks to bring him to 12 career TD receptions, he’s two shy of tying the school record for TD catches by a tight end. He’s been slowed up by a shoulder injury this year, but when healthy watch for number 85 to be a big factor in the passing game as NDSU enters the postseason.
6) Mike Hardie – One of the “Flow Brothers” as dubbed by Big E, I spoke with Hardie on the day he verbally committed back in July of 2009 and you could tell in his voice the energy that he was going to bring. Another kid out of Sioux Falls, Hardie burst on the scene in the 2012 FCS title game with his reception from Adam Keller for the two point conversion that ended up being the number one play on SportsCenter that night. Hardie has been tremendous up front, giving NDSU that needed 1-2 punch from the defensive end position; he was hurt in the season opener at Iowa State, but rehabbed his way back into the lineup and missed just three games. A healthy Hardie to go with Kyle Emanuel solidifies the Bison with perhaps the best defensive ends in the country.
7) Adam Keller – One of the only recruits to come from the East Coast; Keller, a Pennsylvania native may go down as the best kicker in Bison history. After a record setting season in 2012; he took a step back in 2013; bothered by a hip injury and an offense that was unbelievable in the red zone. Keller has raised his game when the NDSU offense has stalled inside the 20; he’s already 22 of 26 this season, including games where he connected on five field goals (Montana) and four (USD). Keller’s range has improved as time has went on, making a 50 yarder against Indiana State. Solid special teams has been a hallmark of these Bison teams over the past four years and Keller has been a big reason why. I think a solid postseason will earn Keller a look at the next level if he wants it. Also he’s got one of the best stories on this team, as I first told it a couple of years ago.
8) Esley Thorton – He came to Fargo as one of the most decorated North Dakota athletes in state history, winning back to back state football titles at Bismarck High in 2008-09 and a basketball title to boot. Some expected he would be the Bison quarterback of the future when arriving on campus in 2010. It nearly got to the point that Thorton had to play his true freshman year when QB’s kept dropping at Missouri State (he made the trip that day). Thorton kept his redshirt and boy is NDSU glad for that. He backed up Brock Jensen in 2011; even getting in the title game that year when Jensen was knocked out for a play. But you could tell there was going to be a battle for QB in the spring of 2012 when Wentz was done redshirting, and Thorton to his credit was open to a position change. He moved to linebacker in the fall of 2012 and its suited him. He learned the position that season and it paid off last year, after Grant Olson was injured in 2013, Thorton was thrust into the starting lineup and he thrived, racking up nine tackles against Furman in the playoffs. He’s taken his game to another level in 2014, registering his first career sack and interception, I spoke with him this week about the transition. Thorton is the definition of not only a great athlete, but a winner.
9) Trevor Gebhart – The second member of this class from Sioux Falls, Gebhart is a guy every team wants. He does whatever is asked of him, from being a terrific blocker to a guy who can make a tip-toe sideline catch (he does both very well, by the way). His career was slowed by injuries to start in 2011, but once healthy in 2012, he became a go-to-guy for Brock Jensen, I remember road games at Colorado State and UNI when Gebhart was huge, he had his best season, racking up 34 catches. His production has went down over the last two years, but that doesn’t mean his value has. Gebhart was huge in this year’s game against Southern Illinois, scoring on a 75 yard touchdown play that sealed the win and then scoring again this past Saturday against Missouri State. His speed is underrated and will be needed as NDSU begins its playoff run.
10) Colten Heagle – What more is there to say about NDSU’s career leader in solo tackles? Heagle burst on the scene in 2010 when he was inserted into the lineup against Indiana State, a must-win that season and the Bison never looked back. Heagle’s wow moment came in the 2011 FCS semis against Georgia Southern, where he was marked up on GSU QB Jaybo Shaw and Heagle delivered to the tune of 15 tackles. His torn ACL may have been a blessing in disguise as he’s now in his fifth year of starting in 2014, he surpassed his game high in tackles with a 16 tackle performance against Western and has become one of the rocks of the Bison defense. There may not be a tougher guy on the Bison roster, not bad for a guy who was lightly recruited out of Kimberly High School in Wisconsin (the Papermakers by the way).
11) Travis Beck – The best athlete in the class? For my money it’s this guy. Beck will have his detractors for his off the field incidents, but on the field, he’s been as good as you can be. He moved into the starting lineup in the middle of 2011 at SDSU and much like Heagle made an instant impact. His forced fumble against UNI made the Fargodome the loudest it had been to that point and then made Bison fans go even crazier with his pick against Sam Houston in the title game that led to MVP honors. Beck’s other memory for Bison fans will be him leaping into the air last year at Kansas State trying to sack quarterback Jake Waters, Beck hurt his shoulder on the play and wasn’t the same, yet he still racked up 72 tackles. He had played in every game in his career until this year at South Dakota, he’s played in 55 out of a possible 56 games, which at his spot is remarkable. I believe he’ll be in the Bison Hall of Fame one day and won’t be alone with some of his teammates from this class.
12) Carlton Littlejohn – The all-state quarterback at Minneapolis North has turned into a pretty good linebacker for the Bison. My first memory of Carlton was in 2011 against St. Francis when he made a great interception and then returned it 37 yards for a touchdown; and that was in garbage time. I remember thinking, wow, this guy isn’t even starting. It wasn’t long before he was starting and he found himself on the outside of Grant Olson and making plays all over the place. Littlejohn’s athleticism is freaky, he would challenge Beck for the best athlete on the team category; after Olson tore his ACL late last year, he made the move to the middle and hasn’t missed a beat. Littlejohn has played in 54 out of a possible 56 games and always seems to be around the ball, think back to him blocking the possible game-tying field goal against Georgia Southern, or the great pick he had against USD last season. Littlejohn isn’t a loud guy, but he’s saved his best chatter for the field.
13) Zach Vraa – I call him the “Bionic Man” after the two separate surgeries Vraa had to fix the two collarbones he broke. The start of his career couldn’t have gone any worse, Vraa broke his collarbone in fall camp of 2010 and missed the season, then he makes his debut in 2011 and on a diving catch out of bounds, he broke the collarbone again. Vraa rehabbed his way back but then re-injured the collarbone before the James Madison game and was done. Once healthy, he became the deep threat that the Bison were looking for after Warren Holloway graduated. Vraa’s ability to leap and make grabs made it that much easier for Brock Jensen to lob it up to him. In 2013 Vraa took his game to another level racking up 15 touchdowns, a school record, including a huge TD catch on a 4th down play against UNI. His productivity has dropped off a bit in 2014, he has just three touchdowns, although the touchdown last Saturday against Missouri State reminded you of what he did last season. Vraa will be a huge threat to opposing defenses when the playoffs arrive, but finding a guy to pair up with him has been difficult this year. It’s not a done deal that this is it for Vraa, much like Vaadeland, he could come back for a sixth year of eligibility.
14) John Crockett – Nothing I write here about number 23 will do it justice from seeing the actual person in action. We had heard plenty about Crockett for two years after he signed, he had offers from every Big 10 school but Northwestern out of Totino-Grace and after he got his grades together, he showed why. His first wow moment came in his first game; 2012 against Robert Morris, a run that no Bison fan will forget. He became the 1-2 punch with Sam Ojuri, racking up 1,000 yard seasons in the process, all the time with the ability to break a run for a touchdown. He had a spurt of three straight 100 yard games last year, including a three touchdown performance in the second half against SIU that was out of this world. He’s taken on the brunt of the workload in 2014 and it hasn’t slowed him down in the least, already with 243 carries and over 12 hundred yards with still a game to go in the regular season. He’s added pass-catching to his resume this year and become very good at that. Crockett’s personality will be remembered for a long time but his work ethic shouldn’t be overlooked considering what he had to overcome just to get on the field.
15) Kyle Emanuel – My pick for the Buck Buchanan award this year, it’s been a steady rise up the charts for Emanuel. He’s never missed a game, playing in all 56 games and been a force in more than I can remember. He was the guy that scooped up the forced fumble by Travis Beck and scored what was the momentum changer in the program changing win over UNI in 2011. It was Emanuel who scooped up the blocked field goal in last year’s FCS title game and ran down the sidelines and changed the momentum of that game. It was Emanuel who’s been basically unblockable this season, to the tune of 15.5 sacks, now second in school history in that stat and has a real shot of playing on Sundays. Chris Klieman called him the best defensive end in FCS before the season and his play has backed that up, Emanuel has been off the charts and if you want another reason why he’s been so good? Go back and look at that interception he had last week against Missouri State, the pick was amazing and the stiff arm was even better.
16) Christian Dudzik – The heart and soul of this team in my opinion, Dudzik hasn’t missed a game since he arrived on campus, better yet, he’s started every game since he was inserted into the lineup in 2011. Dudzik was a cornerback that year after Brendin Pierre had to sit out and all Dudzik did was to be named to the league’s All-Newcomer team. His first interception was a game-changer against Lehigh in the FCS quarters in 2011 and the picks didn’t stop there. He racked up six more last season, becoming a true ball-hawker. The game-changing moments haven’t stopped either, he added punt returner to his arsenal in 2012 and showed it off at USD, returning two kicks and showing off his speed, he one-upped himself last year at Indiana State returning two punts for touchdown in the same game. He showed his leadership abilities early in spring practice this year and that’s carried over to this season, being named a team captain. He showed his toughness in the season opener at Iowa State, getting the wind knocked out of him diving for a play, then two plays later back in and made a huge interception to change the momentum of that game. Dudzik reminded me this week of a question I asked him shortly after the 2011 title game in the locker room, when I asked, “What do you think this group of freshmen can do?” He responded, “I think we can do some special things.” 53-3 is some special things and with a chance to make history in December.
There they are, perhaps the greatest class in NDSU football history.