FARGO — The football season opener vs. Mississippi Valley State is two weeks away. Although North Dakota State hasn’t formally named its starting offensive line, an educated guess at it is getting easier by the day.
At heart of any kind of debate: Will junior Colin Conner be a tackle or a guard? The answer as of the end of practice this week was both.
“He is absolutely both and he’s continually progressed at guard,” said offensive line coach Conor Riley.
Conner, last year’s starting left tackle, may move one spot over to guard to make way for redshirt freshman Dillon Radunz, who has been making a push for that spot since spring football. That’s fine with Conner, who said he’s been trying to help Radunz in every way possible.
It’s also meant a change in comfort level for Conner.
“Obviously I like tackle, I’ve been used to tackle,” he said. “But I’m going to have to play guard. I have to step up.”
If that’s the case, the best guess for a starting five would be Radunz at left tackle, Conner at left guard, junior Tanner Volson at center, senior Austin Kuhnert at right guard and sophomore Zack Johnson at right tackle.
Riley said Johnson has “solidified” his starting role. Kuhnert, last year’s starting center, has missed some practice time with a minor injury but has played guard before and the transition is expected to be seamless.
Riley also said he expects at least seven players to see significant time, at least in the season opener.
“I see a lot of athletic guys up there,” he said Friday. “I see a lot of ability — still seeing some inconsistency — but yesterday especially I saw a lot of competition and that was the most exciting thing. I saw guys beginning to take ownership of things. I saw communication improving — it’s still a work in progress with a lot of these young guys — but we’re taking the steps we need to be taking.”
At 6-foot-5 and 309 pounds, Conner has the size for an interior lineman. Radunz has more reach at 6-6 and 287. The key for Radunz, Riley said, is how many snaps he can take in a game.
“He’s going to play a lot of football for us and when I talked with Dillon the other day, the question is if he’s going to be a 75 snaps-a-game guy,” Riley said. “That will be more up to him and how he continues to progress.”
In comparison, Riley said Kuhnert — in his fourth year as a starter — played about 45 snaps when he first broke into the lineup.
“Then it was 50 and then it was 60,” Riley said. “By the time we played in the national championship game that year, he didn’t come out of the football game.”
Klieman points to the difficulty of learning the playbook. It’s a fire drill as a true freshman but becomes a little more clear during spring football.
“Then you come out in the fall and take a guy like Dillon (Radunz), now is the third time he’s heard the same playbook from coach Riley. And it does start to slow down and as the body starts to mature, the game slows down.”