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Jeff Kolpack, Published March 30 2013

Bison have plenty of veterans back for spring football practice starting Monday

FARGO – Just like in early January, the snow is still on the ground and North Dakota State is playing football. Wasn’t it just a few days ago the Bison were playing for the national championship in Frisco, Texas?

Time flies when you’re having fun – and winning. Ready or not, spring football practice begins Monday. And for the second straight April, the Bison will address the issues of coming off a 15-game season and handling the mental hurdle of complacency.

They conquered both last year, taking the Division I Football Championship Subdivision crown for the second straight season.

“I think the results beared out,” said head coach Craig Bohl. “I thought we did a good job of addressing it. I thought we had good leadership, and we had a hungry football team last year.”

Leadership on the field won’t be hard to come by this year. The Bison return 24 seniors, with most of them having played since their freshman seasons. On offense, quarterback Brock Jensen, left tackle Billy Turner and fullback Andrew Grothmann all had starts as freshmen.

On defense, that also goes for nose guard Leevon Perry, linebacker Grant Olson, cornerbacks Marcus Williams and Brendin Pierre and safety Colten Heagle, although Heagle took a medical hardship last year after injuring his knee and will be a junior again. The same goes for center Jesse Hinz, who started as a freshman but missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.

Hinz is expected to battle junior Adam Schueller for the starting center position. Offensive line coach Scott Fuchs said Zac Johnson, a Fargo South graduate who transferred from Valley City State, will get a look.

Injuries will keep eight players out of spring drills, but Bohl said the fact all of those players have extensive experience lessens the blow. After all, after playing 30 games in the last two seasons and 44 in the last three, how many times does Grothmann have to run into Perry at full speed?

“I think we have an experienced coaching staff that recognizes that there’s just so many train wrecks in a fullback,” Bohl said. “After a while, you have to be smart. I think the starters that are coming back need to show a competency level to improve, but we’re not looking to define who the starting left tackle (Turner) is going to be. We know those things.”

What the coaches don’t know is the depth, always a crucial factor in any team that is hoping for a Missouri Valley Football Conference title shot and a run in the FCS playoffs. Bohl said finding backups to starting linebackers Travis Beck, Grant Olson and Carlton Littlejohn will be a priority.

All three made it through the entire 2012 season despite battling injuries.

“I don’t think we can push the envelope like that again,” Bohl said.

They would like to solidify a starting cornerback opposite Williams to replace graduated Andre Martin, with Pierre having the most experience but a young player like C.J. Smith or Jordan Champion waiting their chance.

Lund, Martin, tight end Garrett Bruhn and safety Bobby Ollman were the only senior starters in the national title game.

Bohl said he does not expect the lingering winter weather and impending Red River flood to hamper spring plans. Unlike 2009, NDSU has an all-weather practice turf.

“I think we’re in a better position as an athletic department, and I think the city is in a different position, too,” he said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia