UND’s Heidlebaugh, Gordon using spring to try new positions
GRAND FORKS — With UND four-year starting quarterback Keaton Studsrud graduating this offseason, there’s a wide-open battle for his replacement taking place during the team’s spring practices at the High Performance Center.
One quarterback from last season, however, has withdrawn from that competition and now finds himself in another battle for playing time.
Brad Heidlebaugh, a talented multi-sport athlete out of Rugby (N.D.) High School, is using spring ball to try to crack the depth chart at wide receiver.
“It’s kind of strange; I’ve never played wide receiver in my life,” Heidlebaugh said. “It’s different, but as a quarterback you know what the wide receivers are doing and I feel like I’m athletic enough to play.”
Heidlebaugh, who’s 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, spent a redshirt season and his freshman and sophomore seasons at quarterback. As a redshirt freshman, he threw a touchdown on his only pass attempt of the season — a 2-yard wobbly heave to Noah Wanzek during a 27-19 win over Weber State.
As a sophomore, Heidlebaugh’s only real shot at the full reins of the offense went poorly. In an Oct. 14 matchup against Montana, he finished 5-for-15 for 56 yards and an interception and was replaced in the second half by backup Andrew Zimmerman.
With Zimmerman, Sacramento State transfer Nate Ketteringham and redshirt freshman Brock Boltmann returning this spring, the writing was on the wall for Heidlebaugh to try something else.
With a big frame and a standout prep basketball background, the UND coaching staff immediately thought of wide receiver, where the Fighting Hawks have had success lately with prospects coming from a hoops pedigree.
“He’s a really hard-working kid and football smart,” UND wide receivers coach Danny Freund said. “He’s got good hands and can run. It’ll be a transition for him, but I think he’ll help us build depth in the room.”
As a three-year member of the quarterback position group, Freund said Heidlebaugh’s voice has value in his wide receiver room because he can coach up the group by giving his perspective through a quarterback’s eyes.
“He understands that and that’ll help him,” Freund said. “It helps to have speed, but if you understand how to run routes and how defenses are trying to play you, you can get open if you’re not a burner, so to speak.”
Heidlebaugh’s biggest hurdle will be his speed.
“I’m not going to be the guy to fly by you,” Heidlebaugh said. “But I have to get my speed up to get off defenders.”
Heidlebaugh plans to spend the offseason working on his foot speed.
“Hopefully that’ll get me where I need to be,” he said. “I came in this winter knowing what everyone is supposed to be doing, so it’s not a learning curve. It’s all physical.”
The position change has provided a bit of an emotional spark, Heidlebaugh said.
“Realizing quarterback wasn’t going as well as I wanted, I got down a little bit,” he said. “The staff said ‘let’s change it up. Let’s get after this thing and let’s make the team better.’ It’s challenging to play something brand new at the Division I level. I have to elevate my game at every single practice.”
Austin Gordon is in a similar situation. Entering his junior year, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Wayzata, Minn., native has decided to move from running back to linebacker.
As a redshirt freshman, Gordon carried the ball 33 times for 243 yards and a 7.4 yards-per-carry average. Last season, Gordon was suspended for the entire season for a violation of NCAA policy.
Entering this spring, Gordon could see the depth chart wasn’t favorable. John Santiago, Brady Oliveira and James Johannesson each return and will require carries.
“He’s a very powerful kid,” UND defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt said. “Our whole deal here is to get him on the field.”
Schmidt recognized Gordon’s defensive potential during special teams drills last year. Gordon was able to get off blocks and run well down the field.
Like Heidlebaugh, though, Gordon faces an uphill battle at a new position.
“I don’t think he’s comfortable in the position and won’t be for a while,” Schmidt said. “But he definitely has the mentality of a defensive player. He’s physical and runs around. His willingness to learn is a lot of fun. He’s got the the opportunity to be able to help us in the fall.”