North Dakota State football players who were known more by their first names or nicknames last season are no longer around. James Hendricks, Jabril Cox, Aaron Mercadel and Marquise Bridges are among several Bison defensive players who won’t be on the field for the Oct. 3 game against Central Arkansas at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
The last time Bison fans saw Hendricks he picked off a James Madison pass to preserve a 28-20 victory in the FCS Division I national title game. The free safety brought more than just plays; he brought plenty of leadership.
What will this year’s Bison defense bring? The Central Arkansas game will be the first test.
“That’s something that’s still left to be proven as this season goes along,” said NDSU defensive coordinator David Braun.
When the Bison face the Bears, there will be usual first-game question marks of replacing players and most of those are on defense. Specifically, the linebackers.
Cox transferred to LSU. Mercadel retired in a sense, moving on with life instead of another year of school. Bridges was the team’s top cornerback.
Junior Jasir Cox will start in his brother Jabril’s old spot.
“He’s had a good summer, a good fall camp and a good last 11 practices,” Braun said.
Junior James Kazcor bid safety permanently goodbye and will start at the other outside linebacker spot.
“James Kaczor is doing incredible things for us,” Braun said. “Selfishly coaching the safeties, I hate to see him no longer in our room. He’s one of our best 11 and we need to find a way to get him on the field.”
Some things have not changed, like the base Tampa 2 defense that puts a premium on linebackers who can run and defensive backs who can cover man-to-man. It’s never been the easiest scheme to learn and that means leadership is crucial.
There are veterans in key spots. Junior strong safety Michael Tutsie started all 16 games last season and was the team’s second leading tackler with 105 stops. Junior middle linebacker Jackson Hankey led that category last year and his 127 tackles were the third-most in NDSU’s Division I history behind Nick DeLuca in 2015 and Grant Olson in 2012.
“Obviously with Jabril and Merc leaving, we lost a whole lot of experience,” Hankey said. “So really it’s me and James at this point that have any sort of game experience right now. At the same time, part of the culture here is we develop players from the second they get on campus. We feel that we have a lot of guys although they may not have a lot of game reps they do have a lot of reps and development that we’re confident in.”
The Bison spent the first 11 practices after football resumed this fall on player development, with a focus on younger players. Counting the last three, they are in game preparation mode for the Bears.
Central Arkansas, which is 0-2, hosts Missouri State Saturday night.
“We’ve been paying attention, trying to see their tendencies this year to see what type of team they are,” said Bison defensive end Logan McCormick. “Obviously they have explosive athletes on offense. We’ll watch this game and other opponents they’ve had, see if we can get a good game plan and compete.”