The opening game of the 2010 football season is important for reasons having nothing to do with the North Dakota State Bison. It's an important game because it's the opening salvo of an entirely new era of Kansas Football, one headlined by new coach Turner Gill. Along with the change on the sidelines, there will be plenty of new faces on the playing field. Gone are Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier and Darrell Stuckey, leaving the reins to a host of unproven and underused players, many of which will enter into enhanced roles beginning Saturday against the Bison.
That's why the game on Saturday is important; it's a debut for a brand new Jayhawks football team. It has nothing to do with the opponent, except for the fact that they're expected to be an easy win. Still, why not be a little more educated about said easy win. Yeah? Yeah.
NDSU Isn't, How Do You Say This, A Good Team
Maybe I'm wrong on this one, but I kind of feel that in the post-Appalachian-State-over-Michigan world we're all living in, most casual fans will see a FCS opponent on the schedule and immediately wonder whether the team is a legitimate threat to upset their favorite team and embarrass them nationwide.
This isn't going to be one of those cases. If Mark Mangino had been fired last week and a coach had yet to be found and the starting quarterback was to be a game-time decision between me and KC (making me an obvious choice), I would probably still bet on the Jayhawks. The Bison went 3-8 last year, including a 2-6 record in conference games. They aren't as terrible as some prior Mark Mangino-scheduled creampuffs, but they are no Appalachian State either.
Thankfully, the debut of the new-look Jayhawks will almost assuredly be a successful one. North Dakota State will still field a team, though, and they will still get stops and still score points, so let's learn some about the names to know and such.
Pat Paschall Ain't Walkin' Through that Door
Last season, the Bison rode the FCS' leading rusher early and often as Paschall averaged roughly 22 touches a game. This included a 21-carry, 146-yard performance in the season opener against Iowa State, the best team the Bison played all year. His season went well enough to get him a free agent deal with the Patriots, but was released soon after.
Without Paschall leading the charge, the brunt of the carries figure to go to DJ McNorton. McNorton has played at wide receiver, linebacker and on special teams in addition to his duties as running back, although he figures to focus more at running back this season. Matt Voigtlander is a larger back who may see some goal line duties, although he averaged over 10 yards a pop last season in limited carries, and will likely get touches on Saturday.
Also not returning is last season's starting quarterback, Nick Mertens, leaving the door open for Jose Mohler to take over the starting job. As a freshman last season he started the final four games, ending the year with better stats than the departed Mertens. He showed plenty of athleticism, running 20 times in his 4 starts for a 7 yard average. Likely by design, the offense focused more on shorter passes with Mohler, causing his completion percentage to soar near 60 percent while keeping his yards low. It will be interesting to see how much NDSU Offensive Coordinator Brent Vigen loosens the reigns on Mohler in his second season on campus, and how he responds to the more difficult offense.
Leading receiver Warren Holloway returns, along with starting tight end Matt Veldman and reserve wide receiver Gary Williams. Holloway is the clear go-to guy, catching more than twice the balls anyone else did last season, and he's a big target coming in at 6'2". The rest of the receiving corps is relatively unknown, although Titus Mack did receive some playing time last season and will start opposite Holloway. Landon Smith is also a returning starter at tight end, although he's more of a blocking tight end with minimal offensive contributions.
Left tackle Michael Arndt headlines the Bison's offensive line, but he's joined by fellow returning starter center Austin Richard. The new starters making their debuts on Saturday are Joe Lund at left guard, Ty Beckius at right guard and Paul Cornick at right tackle.
The Defense Is Standard Fare, Just Like This Title
The Bison's defense isn't awful, at least under the new standard due to the offensive explosion of the past twenty years or so, but it isn't terribly impressive either. They return 8 starters on defense, including all three linebackers, allowing some room for improvement from the Bison.
In the secondary, freshman Brendin Pierre returns to hold onto one cornerback slot while fellow undersized corner Freddie Banks takes over the other starting position. Both safeties return, Cyrus Lemon at strong safety and Daniel Eaves at free.
The strength of the Bison is in the linebacking corps, led by leading tackler Preston Evans in the middle. Brandon Jemison and Matt Anderson return on the outside, with Jemison being the better backer.
Up front, Coulter Bower and Matt Gratzek return to man the left side of the line while Leevon Perry and Scott Stoczynski step up to starting roles on the right.
All in all, the Bison D figures to be improved, but should still be no match for even an inconsistent and still-in-progress Kansas offense.
Perry is a freshman, one of 15 on the two-deep depth chart, representative of the youth movement the North Dakota State Bison themselves are undertaking. 7 of them are on defense, 4 on offense (including backup quarterback Brock Jensen who is said to have all of the tools necessary to play the position) and 4 on special teams (including both returners). There are at least two freshmen at each position grouping on defense, while the ones on offense are limited to Jensen and the offensive line. And while Perry is the only starter, excluding starting returners Ryan Smith and Matt Sigers (who form the shortest return duo in the nation, I'm sure, standing at 5'7" and 5'5" respectively), the Bison are clearly rebuilding. Nearly all senior starters are backed up by a freshman or a sophomore, and plenty of the junior starters are as well. The Bison appear to have a brighter future on the horizon, although that future is still on the horizon and not nearly bright enough to take down a FBS opponent.
So Now That We're All Informed
Basically, a preview of this type for such an opponent doesn't tend to really shed any new light. Sure, now you'll be the cocky a-hole who can name the (two) starting tight ends for the Bison, but that's just rudimentary knowledge anyhow.
Just as you did before you read the preview, you know we're probably going to kick some butt Saturday evening/night/whatever. We'll probably have struggles, we'll probably have some stupid turnovers and stupid penalties and other stupid mistakes teams make in their first game under a new coach with a brand new quarterback. But there will also be plenty of promise and big plays and flashes of brilliance to keep us excited about the season. The question isn't whether we'll win, or really even by how much. The real question is how we will play, particularly Kale Pick at quarterback. Todd Reesing and Mark Mangino are gone, and now it's time for Turner Gill and his batch of players to introduce themselves to the world.
North Dakota State is just there because some team has to, or it wouldn't be a proper introduction. They are necessary only to showcase the new offensive scheme(s) and the new defensive talent and the new coaching staff and all of the other new stuff attached to this 2010 squad.