FARGO — Almost two weeks into fall practice, it’s becoming apparent true freshmen receivers Braylon Henderson, D.J. Baptiste and Jake Lippe have a serious shot of having their redshirt removed at some point this season. The beauty for the North Dakota State coaching staff: They don’t have to make a decision for a while.
Now in its second year, the NCAA rule that allows players to play four games (mainly targeted at freshmen) without losing a year of eligibility has taken the edge off of fall camp evaluation of first-year players. At the least, it appears Henderson, Baptiste and Lippe will get their chances in NDSU’s four non-conference games, starting with the Aug. 31 opener against Butler at Target Field in Minneapolis.
“I think this year you’ll see us attempt to play more younger kids at an early stage so we know: Do we have them all year?” said head coach Matt Entz. “Do we need to keep them with the offense and defense as practice starts to unfold for game weeks?”
If the Bison were to go into game preparation right now, Entz said the top three receivers would probably be sophomores Phoenix Sproles and Christian Watson and senior Jimmy Kepouros. With NDSU taking at least seven receivers on its 65-man roster Missouri Valley Football Conference road trips — perhaps up to 10 for non-conference games against Butler and at Delaware — that leaves room for other players to crack the depth chart.
Enter Henderson from Wylie, Texas; Baptiste from Hutto, Texas; and Lippe from Port Washington, Wis.
They’re not the only true freshmen getting looks to play right away. Running back Kobe Johnson from Lawrenceville, Ga., has shown the speed to play right away, but the Bison are also pretty deep at that position. On defense, Entz mentioned linebacker Luke Weerts from Batavia, Ill., safety Julian Wlodarczyk from Naperville, Ill., and cornerback Terrell Hall from Winona, Minn. If all three play, it will most likely be on special teams.
“Just like every year, probably going to look at them to help us on special teams first,” Entz said, “and continue to coach them and continue to teach them the schematics of the offense and defense as we move forward.”
It won’t be easy. NDSU may have lost several key players from last year’s FCS national title team, but a good retention rate from the last few years doesn’t leave much room for true freshmen to crack the lineup.
Enter the four-game NCAA rule.
“It does take the pressure off,” Entz of decisions coaches had to make before that rule. “Maybe the lights are too bright for them on Saturday and they’re just not ready to do it from a maturity standpoint.”
One added luxury Entz has this year that former head coach Chris Klieman didn’t have last season is a fourth non-conference game. Because of the way the calendar falls, FCS teams are permitted 12 regular-season games this season.
Moreover, NDSU has a bye week following the nonconference games against Butler, the University of North Dakota, Delaware and UC Davis before Missouri Valley Football Conference play begins. It makes for a five-week, in-season evaluation period.
“You always hope to have opportunities to play these kids in situations where they’re still valuable reps,” Entz said. “You want to see them have the pressure of it being a valuable moment during a game. So I think it will be critical as we go through the next six weeks to identify what freshmen are going to play for the year and what freshmen are going to be a four-game limit.”