Commentary: Bison receiving corps lacks depth, experience
FARGO — RJ Urzendowski is still hanging out at North Dakota State football practices, helping Bison receivers get ready for the 2018 season as a quasi-coach. The former standout pass-catcher has another semester left until he graduates in construction management with a minor in business.
There's a chance Bison coaches look at Urzendowski and wistfully wish he had one more year of eligibility. His career ended with NDSU's national championship game victory over James Madison in January. Urzendowski finished fifth in career receptions at NDSU with 149 and fourth in receiving yards (2,435) and tied for fourth in touchdown receptions (22).
And those numbers don't account for the clutch playoff catches Urzendowski made (see FCS title game vs. Illinois State, among others), nor the highlight-reel one-handers he made seem routine. Like Zach Vraa before him, Urzendowski had a knack for catching anything thrown near him.
This year will be new territory for the Bison receiving corps and senior quarterback Easton Stick. The clear No. 1 receiver is senior Darrius Shepherd, who has more than 40 catches in each of the last three seasons, including a team-leading 41 a year ago. Beyond that, there are few career catches and not much clutch-time experience.
Dallas Freeman, a senior from St. Michael-Albertville High School in Minnesota, is listed as the starter opposite Shepherd. The backups on the two-deep depth chart are senior Desmond Cain, a Florida product who transferred from the Big Ten's Illinois prior to last season, and redshirt freshman Andy Voyen from Stillwater, Minn.
Receptions in a Bison uniform break down like this: Freeman 12, Cain 5, Voyen 0. Freeman has the only touchdown, a 14-yard grab in a blowout at Indiana State last season.
Bison head coach Chris Klieman says he's comfortable with the top three, but concerned about depth after that.
Voyen leap-frogged redshirt freshman Christian Watson because Watson hasn't practiced in about a week and a half and his status for Saturday's opener against Cal Poly at the Fargodome is a game-time decision. Klieman also said true freshman Phoenix Sproles, from Twin Cities suburban Robbinsdale Cooper High School, might be in the two-deep mix.
Then there's this: Senior Dimitri Williams, who came to NDSU as a running back but converted to receiver, has switched to running back and might sit out this year as a redshirt.
It's a position, at first glance, that doesn't have a lot of pop and might be missing the dependable, durable pass-catcher like a Vraa or Urzendowski. That's where Klieman believes Freeman will make a difference, saying it's time for "a breakout year." Freeman's confidence has grown through fall camp, the coach said, as Stick's confidence has grown in the receiver.
"He has to have a big year. A big year could be 25-30 balls, but a lot of those could be on third and eight or third and nine that are critical catches for us," Klieman said. "He has to have big year for us to be successful and I know he's excited about that."
The Bison would like to see more out of Cain, who made a splash his true freshman season at Illinois before struggling through an injury-plagued sophomore season and transferring to NDSU in the spring of 2017. Cain had 53 catches for 492 yards as a freshman, including 10 receptions for 102 yards against third-ranked Ohio State.
His biggest impact in his first year as a Bison might have come on special teams, since Cain's offensive contribution was single catches in five different games.
It's easy to downplay the Bison's lack of receiving depth because they run the ball so effectively and have an abundance of talented running backs in Bruce Anderson, Lance Dunn, Ty Brooks and Seth Wilson. But Klieman himself likes to say NDSU splits its offensive play calling closer to 50-50 run/pass until the Bison get a big lead in the second half. And despite racking up gaudy rushing and time of possession numbers, the Bison have been fortunate to have a nice mix of big-play and possession receivers during their championship dynasty.
The Bison have never had a Jake Wieneke (South Dakota State) or Riley Stapleton (James Madison) superstar, but what they've had has been consistent and clutch.
If we presume Shepherd is their home-run guy — and his critical 50-yard TD catch in the title game against James Madison would seem to give him that title — it's up to Freeman or somebody else to fill the other role. Klieman has confidence Freeman is up to the task, but it might take several games for the senior to prove worthy.
The Bison don't have many question marks, but receiver would appear to be one of them.