After an entire spring, four weeks of fall camp and an intense week of game preparation, North Dakota State University football coach Craig Bohl feels pretty prepared for this week’s challenge.
The reason? Bohl and the Bison will be facing a Kansas University squad that spent the offseason sorting out many of the same questions the team from Fargo, N.D., did.
Quarterback battle? Check. Team-wide competition? Check. New faces in new places throughout the offense and defense? Check.
Both head coaches played their college ball at Nebraska, with Bohl playing defensive back from 1977-79 and KU’s Turner Gill playing quarterback from 1980-83.
Add to all that the fact that Bohl’s program has three victories against FBS teams (Minnesota, Ball State and Central Michigan) since 2006, and it’s clear that the game against NDSU might be more than just the cupcake opener that many expect it to be.
“That gets your attention right off the bat when you have someone in the FCS division and where they have defeated some people,” Gill said. “(Coach Bohl) has done an outstanding job. I know that his team will play hard. I know that they have been coached well. I know he is a very good, defensive-minded coach, and I know he gets his guys to play in a great way.”
Like the Jayhawks, Bohl was forced to pick between a sophomore, Jose Mohler, and a red-shirt freshman, Brock Jensen, when handing out the starting quarterback job. Bohl went with the sophomore, Mohler, mirroring the decision made by Gill, who chose sophomore Kale Pick over red-shirt freshman Jordan Webb.
“They obviously had a little bit of a quarterback competition as well,” Gill said. “So I think we are similar in ways. (In the) first ball game, you never know how your players are going to respond, but I know that we are both excited to see an opponent.”
The battle between Mohler, 6-foot, 170 pounds, and Jensen, 6-3, 220, was tough for the NDSU coaching staff.
Both players competed with fire throughout the preseason, and Bohl continually talked about how the competition was good for both young men.
Ultimately, Bohl elected to go with Mohler for his ability to handle pressure and the progress he made from the end of 2009, when he played in NDSU’s final four games of the season.
“Certainly the quarterback position has been analyzed and talked about more this year than in quite some time,” he said. “We had a great competition all during fall camp. We evaluated every practice, we evaluated a full scrimmage, with a lot of blitz situations, and we really feel comfortable with the progress Jose has made.”
Bohl worked the Bison tirelessly this offseason. He opened up every starting spot, forced the entire team to start from scratch and went well beyond what the folks at North Dakota State were accustomed to seeing.
“We had competitive practices, we double-repped, we worked harder in fall camp than we ever have since I’ve been our head football coach,” Bohl said. “And we needed to. Our two opening games are really, really tough competition.”
In all, NDSU’s depth chart features six freshmen and six red-shirt freshmen. By comparison, KU’s depth chart includes 14 red-shirt freshmen and just one true freshman in the top two at each position.
In many ways, this season’s fresh start set Bohl’s program back a bit. With just four starters returning on offense and four on defense, he knew it would, though. With that in mind, he chose to take the step-back-to-move-forward approach, and, because those starting jobs were open all offseason, Bohl said he believed his team worked harder than ever.
In some areas, such as defensive line, that’s starting to show.
“The area we’ve made the most progress is our defensive front,” Bohl said. “(That’s) starting to come around and look like we need it to. But we’ve been practicing against each other. We’ll find out a whole lot more probably in about the middle of the first quarter of the KU game.”
Another area of strength for the Bison appears to be in the secondary, where senior cornerback Freddie Banks will lead the Bison on the field and first-year secondary coach Brian Ward brings a fresh approach.
“It’s a major strength,” Banks said. “With the coaching we’re getting, especially with our communication, we’re getting better every day, playing hard and playing fast.”