FRISCO, Texas (STATS) – North Dakota State All-American offensive lineman Zack Johnson looked out to the Toyota Stadium field on Thursday and thought back to his first time standing there.
The end of the 2015 season was when Joe Haeg was anchoring the line for quarterback Carson Wentz and the Bison’s FCS championship squad. Johnson spent that season redshirting, getting ready for future years.
“I was a lot more wide-eyed,” Johnson reflected. “This one’s more focused.”
The Bison were senior-led when they completed a record fifth straight FCS title in 2015. The Missouri Valley Football Conference power is back trying to make it eight titles in nine years against an equally talented James Madison squad on Saturday, and it’s arrived 15-0 and with a roster that returned only seven starters for coach Matt Entz’s first season at the helm.
Age is only a number, of course, and redshirt freshman Trey Lance has put up big numbers for a team that grew up quickly this season. Entz said he prefers to have grizzled 22- and 23-year-olds, like a Johnson, leading the way, but sometimes talent can’t be denied.
The NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule – enacted last season – allowed Lance to get his feet wet behind senior starter Easton Stick – the winningest quarterback in FCS history – leading to a smooth transition this season. Like other Division I teams, the Bison can test-drive their true freshmen early in the season and find out which ones are too valuable not to lift their redshirt, such as running back Kobe Johnson and linebacker Luke Weerts on special teams.
“It’s always my kind of philosophy that the farther they are away from the snap of the ball, they probably have an easier time to play early in their career,” Entz said, “so that takes away D-linemen, O-linemen, sometimes quarterbacks, from playing earlier in their career. Trey is, of course, a different situation. Trey’s extremely mature, extremely sharp, couldn’t have had a better mentor a year ago as far as Easton and learning about going about your weekly preparation. If they’re healthy and they’re eligible, then we should try to play them if they can help us.
“For the most part, we want to hold guys off and redshirt them if we can. We still probably redshirt 90 percent of our kids. There’s always two or three that seem to play for us every year.”
Cornerback Marquis Bridges, whose first career start was as a sophomore against James Madison in the 2017 national championship game, where he had an important interception in the 17-13 win, saw Lance’s rise coming.
“I talk to Trey a lot. I just tell Trey to lead us – he’s a great leader,” Bridges said. “I feel like any moment that we have, especially him, is not going to be too big for him. Throughout the year, I just tell him to always keep his head in the game. He’s led us this way so far.
“Some people have to wait their turn and some people step in and shine right away. I don’t think it’s more about grade level as much as talent.”
The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Lance is a dual-threat who enters the biggest game of his career with only one turnover in 15 games – a fumble in the season opener and zero interceptions. The winner of the MVFC’s offensive, freshman and newcomer awards has won the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award as the national freshman of the year and will learn tomorrow night about the Walter Payton Award as national offensive player of the year.
But, like a veteran, he says the team’s performance is more important to him.
“The role will be different, for sure,” Lance said, looking back to his first visit to Frisco, like Johnson. “But just going through it last year and being able to see Easton go through it and all his steps that he took to be successful in this game, last year obviously helped me out a lot.”
James Madison is “really a talented team. Just fast, athletic. They just do their job really well, they’re just really talented. We just have to be physical, play Bison football, play as hard as we can for those 60 minutes and look up and see how we did.”