The 2023 offseason has been uncharted territory so far for perennial FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. Not only are the Bison coming off a championship loss for the first time in their illustrious history since moving to Division I, but they are also seeing a side of the transfer portal that they aren’t used to.
Losing players to the NFL is something that NDSU fans have become accustomed to seeing on a yearly basis and this spring will be no different in that respect. The Bison have three players that have already received invites to the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and are likely to be drafted in April. Fullback Hunter Luepke, offensive lineman Cody Mauch and tight end Noah Gindorff... three of the program’s staple players over the last several years... will join a long list of Bison to make it to the pros. That, though, has been the only normal part of the winter for North Dakota State.
What is not normal is the fact that 12 NDSU players have hit the transfer portal and opted to leave the program on their own volition. What’s more is that several of those players served as starters at some point during the 2022 season that once again resulted in NDSU playing for a title in Frisco.
The day after the regular season came to a close, the Bison saw DB Marques Sigle dip his name into the portal along with two of his teammates in receiver DJ Hart and running back Dominic Gonnella. Those three, of course, were not part of the playoff run. Several others who were, however, have since followed in the same footsteps. Courtney Eubanks, Jalen Bussey, Phoenix Sproles and Kobe Johnson all played a key role in getting NDSU back to the promised land earlier this month but all will be playing elsewhere next fall.
It’s a troubling trend for sure, but just how impactful will it be? Johnson, for instance, was one of the latest to hit the portal and he may very well be the biggest loss moving into next season. Over the last four years he’s racked up 2,566 rushing yards with 18 scores and has played a pivotal part in the team’s two championships during that span. This last year alone, Johnson nearly hit the 1,000-yard mark on the ground and averaged 7.5 yards per carry.
The departures of Eubanks and Sproles will be big hits as well. Sproles, who has served as a receiver for the Bison since 2018, helped NDSU win three championships and, while he saw a significantly reduced workload in 2022, still ended his Bison career with 61 receptions for 888 yards and five touchdowns. Eubanks was just as important on the other side of the ball with 47 tackles (35 solo) and an interception last season.
It all begs the question: why are so many high-profile guys leaving what is undoubtedly one of the premier programs in the subdivision and what will things look like for the Bison in 2023 because of it? Seeing where these guys are going may provide some insight into that.
Sproles has found a new home with FBS newcomer and longtime Bison postseason rival James Madison. Sigle is now with Kansas State and Gonnella is heading to South Florida. The Sun Belt, Big 12 and AAC can provide opportunities, be them financial or otherwise, that the Missouri Valley simply cannot.
NIL or not, though, it’s quite common for players at the FCS level to move up for FBS chances especially if moving within the FCS is almost assuredly a step down as it would be leaving NDSU. Programs at the next level generally have more eyes, better TV deals and can often (but not always) be a clearer path to the pros. Several big-name FCS guys have already found new FBS teams. Former Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse is now a member of San Jose State while standout Austin Peay receiver Drae McCray is with Texas Tech. On the whole, this isn’t anything new.
It is new for the Bison, however, there’s still plenty of talent with a lot of experience on the roster. Receiver Zach Mathis, safety Dawson Weber and quarterback Cam Miller are still around, amongst several others. As of right now, it won’t be a lineup that is completely unfamiliar to NDSU followers when the 2023 campaign kicks off in the fall and if there’s any team and coaching staff equip to deal with roster overturn it’s this one.
That being said, we aren’t often talking about North Dakota State in an uncertain light like this - that itself is notable. It’s probably not time to hit the panic button right now, but keeping tabs on NDSU over the next few months will be very interesting.