Bison dig into ND’s secret 9-man gold mine to find offensive line recruits

By Jeff Kolpack
Forum News Service

FARGO – There probably isn’t a county road in North Dakota that North Dakota State assistant football coach Randy Hedberg hasn’t driven. It’s his job, after all, to search all corners of the state to find the next Bison players.
But in the case of five offensive linemen from rural North Dakota, even Hedberg’s GPS had to be challenged in getting from Point A to Point B. Some of those Point Bs are out there.
It’s turned into a gold mine of sorts for NDSU football, which is making an art of taking raw, strong kids and turning them into polished college football players.
“Most of them come from some type of farming background,” Hedberg said. “Dad makes them work and they don’t sit back for anything. They’re involved in all three sports in their high school careers, but they also work full time in the summers, too.”
Junior Bryce Messner is from McVille, junior Luke Bacon is from Granville, freshman Karson Schoening is from Rolla and brothers Tanner Volson, a junior, and freshman Cordell Volson are from Balfour. If you know exactly where all four of those towns are, then you are an expert in North Dakota geography.
Generally, all four towns are located in the north-central portion of the state.
“It’s surreal to think that I’m here,” Bacon said, while standing outside the Bison locker room. “But to have five guys that are all playing on this big stage in this big dome in front of 20,000 people is really cool.”
Here’s the other kicker: All five played 9-man football and the difference between a small-town game with nine players and a Division I FCS top tier program with 11 players is like the difference between a 1950 tractor and the $500,000-plus modern machines of today. But all five came to NDSU knowing that the transition wasn’t going to be easy.
In one instance, Bacon and Tanner Volson were playing together on Team North Dakota getting ready for the Badlands Bowl high school all-star game against Team Montana. Both were practicing at left tackle with the knowledge that they were headed to NDSU.
“We were both trying to learn left tackle,” Bacon said. “No one knew 11-man, so he would go first and do a drill and then I would do the drill and do a little better because he would go first. We ended up rotating, but it was funny.”
Messner is the oldest of the bunch, although he began his career on the defensive line. He’ll be the starting left guard in the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener today against Missouri State. Tanner Volson is the starting center and Schoening is his backup. Bacon is the backup left tackle who can play several positions and Cordell Volson is the backup right tackle who appears to be showing promise by the day.
“A lot of them grew up on farms and rural areas and those guys have unbelievable attention to detail,” said head coach Chris Klieman. “They’re developmental guys that bleed green and gold. They’ve wanted to be a Bison their whole life. I’ve been so impressed with the development of those guys. I think it’s the North Dakota type of kid.”
Bacon said Bison coaches have done a good job of mixing patience of learning 11-man football to pushing them to succeed. The biggest strides, he said, were made as redshirt freshmen in spring football when 11-man concepts could be taught without the stress of having a game on Saturday.
“We all struggled to learn the game,” Bacon said. “But once we all started to click, it was like we need to do this together. We would sit at the dining center and talk about what happened at practice. We still do that now, even as old guys.”
How all five got to NDSU is an exercise in knowing the state. Hedberg, from Parshall, which is almost directly west of Balfour across U.S. Highway 83, said he enjoys traveling the state going to basketball games in the winter to check out the athleticism of potential recruits.
“I think the thing that’s unique about North Dakota is you find out about big kids fairly quickly in the state because there are not a lot of them,” Hedberg said. “That’s kind of how it worked with these guys.”
Big is an understatement. Cordell Volson leads the way at 6-foot-6 and 299 pounds. Tanner is 6-4, 301. Bacon has grown to 6-5, 299, Schoening is 6-5, 297 and Messner goes 6-3, 291.
“You feel like if you’re willing to work, you can play almost anywhere and one of the biggest things to me is being to work, go out and do your job,” Volson said.
On the bigger recruiting stage, because of its rural nature, there is not a lot of competition from schools outside of North Dakota, either. You don’t see the Big Ten Conference wandering around Balfour. Of the FBS programs, only the University of Wyoming has consistently hung around, which is most likely due to former Bison head coach Craig Bohl and offensive coordinator Brent Vigen spending so many years in the state.
“There are hidden gems out there in places that are proving to be great spots to look,” Messner said.
Volson said his home is not that hard to find — about a mile off the highway.
“But it’s in the part of North Dakota where the sign says Minot ‘that way’ and Jamestown ‘that way’ and we’re kind of out in the middle so people don’t think there’s much in between,” he said.
At the beginning of this season, one of the biggest question marks for the Bison was how they were going to replace departing seniors Landon Lechler, Jack Plankers and Zack Johnson on the offensive line. At least in the 3-0 non-conference start, that unknown has been answered and the former 9-man boys are a big reason why.
“I think it’s great for the state and great for the talented kids out there,” Messner said. “Give them a shot and don’t count anyone out.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s Bison Media Blog can be found at bisonmedia.areavoices.com and Twitter @FGOSPORTSWRITER