NDSU’s Jeff Illies may have bested his uncle Ron as hometown area’s best
FARGO — It’s going to be hard for somebody from Wyndmere or Lidgerwood to top Chuck Klosterman as the most famous son from the southeastern North Dakota small towns that form one of the most successful 9-man football programs in the state. The author and national columnist has written for publications like Esquire and ESPN.com.
Klosterman is from Wyndmere and the town has snuck into his talks or writings from time to time. He was a high school basketball player in his prep days, but not near the level of Ron Becker, who played for the University of North Dakota from 1972-76.
Becker was on standout teams that went to the NCAA Division II national tournament in the last two years of his career.
“It happens so seldom, who are the kids from Wyndmere and Lidgerwood who have succeeded?” Becker said.
On the athletic side, you can make a strong case that North Dakota State tight end Jeff Illies is the most prominent athlete from either town. It can also be a family debate: Becker is his uncle.
“Some day he’ll be able to say I caught passes from Carson Wentz,” Becker said. “That’s pretty cool.”
The pretty cool career of Illies is in its last game or games. The Bison host Wofford College (S.C.) Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Division I FCS quarterfinals at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
Even with his strong UND ties, Becker admits there is evidence out there somewhere of him wearing a Bison jersey.
“I can’t believe how much grief I took from that,” he said.
At least he tried steering his nephew to UND. In 2010, he watched Wyndmere-Lidgerwood win the 9-man state football title, a game in which Illies caught three passes for 115 yards, with two of those going for long touchdowns.
The Warbirds set a Dakota Bowl record for most points in a game and won easily 54-12.
“I turned to me wife and said, these guys are good but there is nobody on the field like Jeff,” Becker said. “In 9-man it’s easy to see. The next year he had something like six touchdowns of at least 50 yards. I took the cutups, sent it to the UND football staff and said don’t miss on this guy.”
UND never offered Illies.
Then-Bison head coach Craig Bohl did and the results have been productive. At 6-foot-3 with a long build, Illies always had the height to succeed at the FCS level. He was very visible as a scout team receiver when he redshirted his freshman year in 2013, known to go over defensive backs like Marcus Williams to snag a catch.
“I’ll never forget, he’d go up over Marcus every practice,” said NDSU head coach Chris Klieman. “He had that uncanny ability. We played him as a wide receiver because he was 195 pounds on scout team and he was always the best receiver. He attacked the football.”
But the Bison recruited Illies as a tight end, and that meant he had to gain weight. Bison assistant coach Tyler Roehl, who works with the tight ends and fullbacks, remembers having an offseason conversation after Illies’ second season at NDSU.
He played in all 16 games that season catching seven passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. But the Bison wanted Illies to work his way into being an every-down tight end instead of a receiving tight end.
They kept the goals simple, like try to reach 215 pounds.
“Then the next year was 225 and then 230 to 235,” Roehl said. “Gosh, Jeff has worked hard in the offseasons. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school and he’s put himself in position to be successful on the field. Getting himself from 195 to 235, he’s really put in the work and has what it takes to be a successful tight end at the FCS level.”
The real ownership of the position, Illies said, didn’t come until the week leading up to the 2016 season opener. NDSU had just graduated standout tight ends Andrew Bonnet and Luke Albers from the 2015 title team. Both got pro looks with Bonnet signing a free agent NFL contract.
Illies and Connor Wentz were now the veterans of the position group with both being juniors. The opener was the FCS Kickoff against Charleston Southern and the game plan all week called for Illies to get the ball on NDSU’s first offensive play of the game.
He did. It was an 11-yard completion from quarterback Easton Stick and the Bison went on to take a 24-17 win.
“That was a moment where I looked in the mirror and said my time is starting,” Illies said. “It was a huge confidence booster knowing you’re going to get your shot and the coaches have confidence in you. It’s definitely carried over. I haven’t had the statistical year I had last year but that means nothing to me. We’re having a great year as a team and I’m glad I can contribute anyway I can.”
He’s close to last year with 15 receptions and has 49 for his career heading into the Wofford game. His scoring ratio is most impressive, however, with nine career touchdowns.
“He understands how to get open,” Roehl said. “You don’t have to coach it with him, he has a feel for it and attacks the ball well.”
It’s not often players from in-state reach the end zone for NDSU in the Division I era. Illies is playing with another one in running back Ty Brooks from Fargo South. Carson Wentz, from Bismarck, is the obvious poster child.
“A huge amount of pride,” Illies said.
There was a time when Illies, whose family address is Lidgerwood, thought he may follow in his uncle’s footsteps and play Division II basketball in college. Former Bison basketball player and North Dakota’s first Miss Basketball Pat Smykowski from Lidgerwood can make a case for the most notable daughter from the two towns.
“Football ended up being the biggest opportunity on the biggest stage,” Illies said, “and that’s what I wanted to do — to get to the biggest stage possible.”
And about Uncle Ron in a Bison jersey?
“He’s a Sioux guy, a lot of my family is, so it’s kind of cool to see him in a Bison jersey,” he said.