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More hits than misses in recruiting for NDSU

David Samson/ Forum News Service Quarterback Brock Jensen was part of a 2008 recruiting class that helped fuel NDSU’s three straight FCS national titles.

The path to three straight Division I FCS national titles really starts that first Wednesday in February. That’s when North Dakota State announces its football recruiting class on national signing day.

It’s generally a celebratory event on two fronts: the coaches get to see what their year-around recruiting efforts finally look like on paper and the players, mostly high school prep stars, begin their college journey.

Success of the class, usually, doesn’t get measured for at least two to three years.

One of the keys is to minimize the attrition rate and since NDSU moved to Division I in 2004, statistics show the Bison have fared well with two notable exceptions: the 2008 recruiting class that only saw 24 percent of scholarship players complete their eligibility and the 2011 class, which currently has just 30 percent remaining.

“I worry a bunch about retention,” said NDSU head coach Chris Klieman, “because when you don’t have that, then you’re scrambling to find guys to fit a need, to fill a void, and oftentimes you don’t do a great job of investigating those kids.”

Ironically, NDSU’s two worst classes in terms of retention were also part of the core of three straight titles. So how does that happen? The Bison have followed poor recruiting years with successful ones — they got right back on the recruiting horse and found some thoroughbreds.

For instance, the weak ’08 class was followed with a 67 percent retention rate of the 2009 class. That group included a host of stars like quarterback Brock Jensen, running back Sam Ojuri, defensive linemen Leevon Perry, Cole Jirik and Ryan Drevlow, fullback Andrew Grothmann, tight end Garrett Bruhn and offensive guard Tyler Gimmestad.

The 2010 class was even better with linebackers Chad Willson, Grant Olson, Carlton Littlejohn, Travis Beck and Esley Thorton, receivers Zach Vraa, Trevor Gebhart and Ryan Smith, safeties Colten Heagle and Christian Dudzik, offensive lineman Billy Turner, defensive ends Kyle Emanuel and Mike Hardie, long snapper Michael Murphy and running back John Crockett.

So far, the small numbers of the 2011 recruiting class have been subsidized with 67 percent of the 2012 class still in uniform and 86 percent of the ’13 class still here.

“That’s a great class,” Klieman said. “Those kids will be active players and will be a focal point of our team.”

Four of those players saw the field as true freshmen in linebackers Nick DeLuca and Pierre Gee-Tucker, running back Chase Morlock and defensive end Brad Ambrosius. About the only significant departure is defensive tackle Nick Jacobsen, who left the team to be near his home in Wisconsin.

In general, Klieman said the ideal retention rate would be 85 to 90 percent the first year and 70 percent for the remaining three years.

In comparison, the average retention rate for the 2010 recruiting class for all Big Ten Conference schools was 52 percent. That included a 40 percent mark from the University of Minnesota, which saw 10 of its 25 recruits remain with the program. A coaching change most likely skewed the Gophers’ rate.

That doesn’t mean a low retention rate translates to a problematic class. Despite the low numbers, the ’11 recruiting NDSU class is producing because all six that are left are mostly contributing, or expected to contribute, in a big way like punter Ben LeCompte, fullback Andrew Bonnet, cornerback Jordan Champion and quarterback Carson Wentz.

That class was also the first one signed after an FCS playoff run that reached the quarterfinals in December. It gave the Bison coaches a lesson in postseason recruiting. Because they were coaching – and not recruiting full time in November and December like almost every other FCS team — NDSU changed philosophy opting to offer players scholarships earlier than usual.

So far, the results appear to be worth it. The lack of depth in the 2011 class has in terms of retention been replenished with the 2012 and 2013 classes.

“We really made an emphasis this fall camp to keep those kids in the 2013 class around,” Klieman said. “Forget the football aspect — there are some good players there — but there are good leaders in there. There are kids with great work ethic; kids that aren’t doing the things off the field that would get you in trouble and removed from the team. We really like that class.”

As it turned out, there wasn’t much to like about the 2008 class. Only three of 14 scholarship high school recruits stayed and contributed significantly their senior years in linebacker Preston Evans, center Joe Lund and defensive end Ricky Hagen. Overall, of the 16 players including walkons, only 9.5 percent stayed.

If it wasn’t the most overall unproductive recruiting class in NDSU’s 50 years of success, it had to be close. The Forum only used scholarship players for its analysis because of the variance in the language of walkons and preferred walkons (those players invited to the 90-day fall camp roster) since 2004.

“You can have a small class, but really good leaders in that class can mix with a great junior class,” Klieman said.

On the other end, the last team to win three straight FCS titles was Appalachian State, which since the last of the three-peat championships in 2007 has seen a steady decline in victories.

Yet, the Mountaineers have maintained a steady retention rate in their players. Their 2006 class, signed after the first title, saw 67 percent of the players stay at least four years. The numbers for two later ensuing years were 63 percent from 2008 and 79 percent from 2009.

On the field, the Mountaineers — albeit ineligible for postseason competition because of an FBS transition — fell to 4-8 last season. They were 8-4 in each of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, losing home FCS playoff games both seasons.

The best post-threepeat season was 2009 when ASU reached the semifinals and ended 11-3.

So what does the recent trend in NDSU’s recruiting retention rate mean for the future? The Bison should be solid again this fall with the outstanding players from the 2010 class that will be entering their fifth year.

But if 2015 is going to be a productive year, then it will most likely be up to the 2013 recruiting class — and to some extent the players that were signed last February — to provide a lot of the heavy lifting.

“We’re hoping for the same thing as far as good character with this 2014 class because we’re going to need good back-to-back classes,” Klieman said, “because in two years, we won’t have a very big senior class.”

Kolpack is a sports writer at the Fargo Forum