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Jeff Kolpack, Published April 27 2013

Defense wins Bison Spring Game

FARGO – North Dakota State’s Esley Thorton is no longer a backup quarterback trying to play linebacker. This spring, he’s been a linebacker playing linebacker.

The thought was echoed Saturday when the Bison played their annual Spring Game at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. While lining up to get their Division I Football Championship Subdivision title rings, defensive line coach Nick Goeser told linebackers coach Steve Stanard that Thorton looks like a linebacker now.

“Whereas last year he looked like a quarterback trying to learn to play linebacker,” Stanard said.

If one of the primary goals was to find a backup linebacker, it appears that was answered with Thorton. Head coach Craig Bohl called his improvement over the course of 15 practices “dramatic” and said he’ll be in the rotation next season.

The Bison went last season with outside linebackers Travis Beck and Carlton Littlejohn and middle linebacker Grant Olson playing all four quarters in every game. Beck played every defensive snap of the season.

“We don’t want to do that again,” Thorton said. “They didn’t like going 60 reps a game so I think they want a little relief.”

Thorton was a 205-pound third-string quarterback when he made the move to linebacker in the middle of fall camp in August. Once vying for the backup job to starter Brock Jensen, he fell behind Carson Wentz and decided the best way to see the field was to move to defense. He was an all-state safety at Bismarck.

There has been a lot to learn.

“I feel like mentally I know where to be now,” he said.

That’s what cornerback Marcus Williams sees in the junior, who had six tackles in the Spring Game before 4,921 fans.

“He’s very physical,” Williams said. “He got way better in playing faster because he knows what to do now.”

In a different format because of injuries, the defense defeated the offense 27-16 using a scoring system that rewarded the defense with components like interceptions, fumble recoveries and three-and-outs.

It was a Bison defensive effort that was common last spring. The offense had 24 carries for 55 yards with the top rusher being Wentz with 17 yards of scrambling.

Thorton is up to 220 pounds and hopes to add five to 10 more over the summer. At 6-foot-3, that’s a big outside linebacker in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Bohl said earlier this week that Thorton changed his body composition and is carrying weight as a linebacker differently than he did as a quarterback.

Moreover, after battling at quarterback his first two-plus years at NDSU, he appears to have a defined role.

“It’s always been my goal to get on the field,” he said. “I came here to play football so that’s what I’m getting ready to do. I have two years coming up and I want to close it out playing some football so I’m excited.”

Stanard said the advantage Thorton had this spring compared to last fall was he was able to start from scratch instead of trying to catch the wave in midstream.

“He spent the offseason really studying film and applying himself to learn the defense,” Stanard said. “He came out and had a comfort level and some confidence in what he was doing. He really established himself as a guy we have total confidence to put him in the game.”

Bohl called the Spring Game typical and said there were no apparent injuries.

He said backup quarterback Derek McGinnis did not play because of a suspension for a reason he couldn’t comment on, but will rejoin the team today.

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

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia