The 2017 regular season is dwindling down, but before the season is done, it’s time for a yearly tradition on the Bison Media Blog, with a tip of the hat to the outgoing senior class. This is a post I started a few years ago, a way to get a closer look or just look back at some of the great moments these players have been a part of. You can read about 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 here.
Now a look at a class that dealt with a head coach change, winning three national championships, five conference crowns and the end of the national title streak inside the Fargodome.
Daniel Polansky – A walk-on from Gatzke, Minnesota, Polansky didn’t see the field much until this season, where he caught his first career pass in the season opener against Mississippi Valley State. Polansky has been a valuable special teams player and coveted scout team performer during his five years in Fargo.
Erik Olson – Olson has only played in six career games in his time with the Bison, and could have left the program to seek playing time somewhere else but decided to remain with the team. We interviewed his dad, Darrell on the Kolpack and Izzo radio show last week, his commitment to the team shouldn’t be undervalued.
Zack Ziemer – Ziemer’s presence on the offensive line has been huge over the past three years, he’s been able to play multiple positions in times of need, which may happen again this season depending on Austin Kuhnert’s status. Ziemer started for an injured Kuhnert in 2015 and did a solid job. Ziemer has played guard and center over the past couple of seasons and from what coaches tell me the ability to do that is not easy.
Darren Kelley – Kelley arrived on the Bison roster in the summer of 2016 and was expected to compete for a starting spot in the secondary. Kelley was a transfer from NDSCS, after attending Morgan State. Kelley was switched to cornerback during 2016, but struggled to see the field. He’s been switched back to safety and provided some solid depth on the back end for the Bison defense, registering four tackles this season.
Keenan Hodenfield – There’s not much more than I can add here to what Kolpack wrote about the former Ray Jays standout, which you can read here. I’ll share a brief conversation I had with Keenan before last year’s spring game, where the injury had just happened. I told him I was sorry he got hurt again and he said, “it’s ok, comes with the territory.” Hodenfield is another of the North Dakota 9-man players that made good and his toughness is something to marvel at.
Chris Board – It’s been a wild ride for the Florida native, who came to Fargo as a safety, but was moved to linebacker in 2015. The adjustment wasn’t easy during the later half of that season, but Board’s ability on special teams never wavered. He’s a great open field tackler, something that’s been on display over the past couple of years. Board started at linebacker when Pierre Gee-Tucker was hurt last year during the playoffs and was promoted to starter this season. His season has been derailed by a knee injury, but a healthy Board will be critical down the stretch.
Jackson Koonce – Koonce is a rarity in the Bison football program, a transfer from an FBS program. He arrived last summer and has provided a steady presence at the punter position. He had huge shoes to fill, replacing a four year starter in Ben LeCompte, and fans were eager to criticize Koonce because his punts weren’t like LeCompte, huge booming ones that pinned opponents deep. Instead, Koonce was steady and didn’t allow any punt returns against him last year and didn’t until the sixth game of this season. He’s been a very solid player in his two years in Fargo.
James Fisher – The man that snaps the ball to Koonce is one of the most unheralded on the team and maybe the most valuable. Fisher is the third consecutive four year snapper on the team, following in the footsteps of Jeff Curtis and Michael Murphy. Fisher has had an outstanding career, and while there are no stats to his position, his value is unquestioned on the team.
Bryce Messner – One of the great stories on this team, Messner played defense for the first couple of seasons he was in Fargo, before being moved to the offensive line. His ascension to a starting spot is one of the great success stories in recent memory. Messner has developed into a solid left guard and his experience will be counted on down the stretch run. A proud 9-man alum from McVille, who also just became a dad last week, an example of what hard work can do for a guy.
Matt Plank – Plank was a trendsetter, joining Bryan Shepherd as one of the few to come from the state of Kansas in the D-1 era, he had to bide his time to see the field. Plank saw few reps in his first two years in Fargo, but an injury to Nick DeLuca last season thrust him into the starting lineup and he thried. Plank finished with 76 tackles and became a leader on the defense, being named to the conference Honor Roll. Plank told me last week there were definitely times he questioned staying in Fargo, but it paid off not just for him, but also the Bison. A great example of patience paying off.
Jarrod Tuszka – Tuszka has developed into one of the many standout defensive ends on the Bison defense, after waiting for his chance for two seasons.. Tuszka played in all fourteen games last year, I remember the game last year against Illinois State where he delivered one of the best games of his career. He followed it up with a strip sack at Missouri State that led to a Bison touchdown. His younger brother, Derrek followed him to NDSU and is starting to show signs of being a beast up front.
Connor Wentz – I remember the day that Wentz committed and was curious how often we were going to see a Wentz to Wentz combo. It didn’t happen until late in the 2014 season, when Connor grabbed two touchdown passes from his cousin Carson as the Bison blew out Missouri State. Wentz seems to do his best work away from the Fargodome, he’s caught 3 more touchdowns on the road this season. He’s developed into a solid blocker who has great hands, a player you want on the field who can help your team in multiple ways. One of the many tight ends that has benefited from the West Coast offense.
Grant Morgan – I’m not sure there’s not a more grounded person on the football team than this guy. Morgan got married a couple years ago to Morgan Samec (now Morgan) and they’re expecting their first child next month. Morgan got some reps behind Nate Tanguay, but when Tanguay got hurt, Morgan was moved into the starting spot and was great during the final five games of 2016. The dome exploded last December when Morgan shot thru the offensive line to sack Taryn Christion in the end zone for a safety against South Dakota State. Plank told me no one juggles more than Grant on the football team and it seems like no one is more prepared for the real world than him.
Jeff Illies – Another 9-man standout from Lidgerwood that was the most durable player on the team until fall camp when he hurt his knee and missed the first game of his collegiate career against Mississippi Valley State. Illies became Easton Stick’s go-to-guy in 2016, racking up five touchdowns to lead the team. In his final regular season game inside the Fargodome, Illies had his best game last week, racking up 96 yards in the win over South Dakota. He’s shown the athleticism that made Craig Bohl drive down to Lidgerwood and offer him a scholarship and is one of the quiet leaders on this team.
Cole Davis – I was thrilled to hear Davis get such a loud ovation from the Dome crowd on Saturday because what he’s done during his collegiate career not many would have done. Davis came to Fargo after a standout high school career in Missouri and emerged as the number two quarterback behind Carson Wentz in 2014. Davis knew that Easton Stick was the future at QB for NDSU and he was there to guide him once Wentz was hurt and Stick was promoted to the starter. He has served admirably as the backup quarterback for the last two years, which made it difficult for many to see Davis get hurt on a touchdown no less against Robert Morris. Davis is getting more healthy by the week and should be ready for the postseason.
Austin Kuhnert – There are not many tougher than this guy, so you know it had to be something serious for Kuhnert to miss time like he did last week against South Dakota. He’s the heart of the offensive line in my mind, a guy who has learned and mastered three spots on the offensive line, left guard, center and right guard. Kuhnert also had some adversity to deal with, sitting out the first two games of 2016 after an academic suspension. Kuhnert said it was a wakeup call to him. He’s a fiery guy up front, who’s always intense. Here’s to seeing Kuhnert back on the field soon.
Nate Tanguay – I was told all during 2013, watch out for this guy, he’s going to be a difference maker. Those predictions were proven correct in his first game as Tanguay stood out to me at Iowa State. He hasn’t stopped being a force up front, being named an All-Conference player the last two seasons and that’s after missing the final couple of games with a torn ACL. He has slowed a step this year as he recovers from the injury, but has still proven to be a great defensive tackle. He’s one of the emotional leaders on this team, a captain and a character, who told me before this season started, “we plan not to allow a point this season.” That’s just how Nate rolls.
Tre Dempsey – Another leader, who walks the walk and talks the talk. Dempsey came from one of the top high school football programs in the country in Lakeland, Florida. He first grabbed my attention late in 2014 at Missouri State, filling in for an injured CJ Smith and showed what kind of player he was going to be. Dempsey moved to safety in 2015 and has turned into a true ball-hawker in every sense of the word, racking up 15 interceptions for his career. He is a fierce tackler and defender and is one of the best cornerbacks in FCS. What I found interesting about Tre is what kind of man he is away from the field, which you can see here. His presence will be hard to replace for NDSU.
RJ Urzendowski – A standout receiver who’s talent demanded that he play as a true freshman and NDSU fans are glad that happened. His true freshman season in 2014 is the stuff of legend, catching the game winning touchdown against South Dakota State, then two huge receptions on the game winning drive against Illinois State in the 2015 title game. Urzendowski time and time again has come up with clutch catches to either turn the momentum of a game or to cement games for the Bison. His one-handed touchdown grab against Youngstown State is his best, but something tells me there may be another before his time in a Bison jersey is done.
Nick DeLuca – Bohl told me shortly after DeLuca committed that “this is a special player that never should have left Nebraska.” Bohl couldn’t have been more spot on, as DeLuca has emerged into one of the top players in the division. He too played as a true freshman in 2013, making some eye opening plays on special teams that would grab your attention. DeLuca’s time to shine came in October 2014 when Travis Beck missed a game with injury and DeLuca was great, coming up with an interception and 12 tackles that had USD head coach Joe Glenn gushing. DeLuca starred in the playoffs last year after Beck tore his Achilles, his interception return against Sam Houston State was a thing of beauty. He was even better in 2015, becoming an all-conference player and again starring in the FCS title game. 2016 was cut short by a shoulder injury, but not before he grabbed a pick six against Eastern Washington. His 2017 season was cut short by a knee injury, but he’s returned and again showing why he’s a difference maker. DeLuca will play in the NFL and will always be a fan favorite in Fargo.
An impressive group when you look at them as a whole, twenty players hoping for another long playoff run.