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Jeff Kolpack, Published October 18 2013

Bison receiver Vraa picking up the pace

Fargo - The unofficial North Dakota State Division I school record for a wide receiver improving his speed belongs to Kole Heckendorf. At least that’s the calculation Bison junior Zach Vraa is going with.

Heckendorf came to NDSU in 2004 and ran about a 4.7-second 40-yard dash. By the time he was a senior and professional prospect, he was around a 4.4 in the 40.

That three-tenths of a second improvement is the benchmark Vraa is shooting for. He’s about two-thirds of the way there now, and that probably best explains why he’s gone from just another receiver to one of the most productive in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

“He’s a physical receiver, but I even underestimate his speed sometimes,” said NDSU quarterback Brock Jensen. “It’s something I’ve had to learn. Get the ball out there and let him run under it sometimes is smarter than to let him go up and get it. He can get it done either way.”

He got it done last week with a career-high 179 yards receiving and two touchdowns in a 41-26 win against Missouri State. He’s ranks fourth in the conference in receiving yards per game with a 74.5-yard average heading into today’s pivotal league game at Southern Illinois.

Certainly, having a healthy season is one major factor. The collarbone fiasco of his first two years appears to finally be behind him.

He broke it in fall camp in his first year at NDSU when it appeared he was poised to break into the lineup as a true freshman. He broke the collarbone on his other side in the 2011 season opener against Lafayette College (Pa.). Just as it appeared he was ready to get back into the lineup, he broke it again in practice in November and watched the FCS playoffs from the sideline.

“After the first injury, it just happened, and I was a little bummed at the time,” Vraa said. “When it happened again, I was just thinking, ‘What is going on now?’ But it’s something you just have to fight through and work past, and good stuff always comes out of it.”

A lot of good stuff came last year until he hurt his shoulder that slowed him the second half of the season. It was unrelated to his collarbone problems.

Through it all, the speed has steadily gotten better. In the Missouri State postgame news conference, teammates called him “deceptively fast.”

Like when Heckendorf first got to NDSU, Vraa said he ran about a 4.7-second 40 when he enrolled from Rosemount High School in the Twin Cities. He was named Minnesota’s Mr. Football in 2009, finishing his career with 113 receptions for 1,985 yards and 25 touchdowns.

In track and field, he was a state champion in the

110-meter hurdles.

“We knew he could be extremely dynamic coming into college,” Jensen said. “He’s gotten better every which way you look at a receiver. He’s fun to throw to, I’ll tell you that, and we’re going to need him to play well the rest of the year.”

That 4.7, by the way, is now down to 4.5. Vraa said he’s been focusing on technique and form. One more tenth of a second and he’ll tie Heckendorf’s unofficial record.

“I’m similar to him right now,” Vraa said. “I’ve improved by two-tenths, and hopefully there is more as the years go on.”

He’s listed as a junior but in theory, he could take a medical hardship and regain another year of eligibility. Vraa has said he’ll make that decision when the time calls for it.

For now, he’s become NDSU’s most consistent deep threat since Warren Holloway helped lead the Bison to their first FCS national title in 2011. Vraa averages 17.9 yards per reception.

“I think most receivers want to be viewed as a deep threat,” Vraa said, “but obviously you want to be an all-around receiver and not just a deep-threat guy.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia