Underappreciated Stick Looks An Awful Lot Like Jensen For Bison

I’ve been working on a column about North Dakota State senior quarterback Easton Stick as the Bison opened spring practice this week. It will run in Friday’s editions of The Forum. The gist is that Stick has worked his way into becoming an NFL prospect and enters 2018, by some accounts, as the top-ranked FCS prospect at quarterback.

It’s long been my contention Stick is underappreciated as NDSU’s quarterback, in part because he was the starter in 2016 when the Bison lost to James Madison in the playoff semifinals and Stick didn’t play particularly well in that game. That ended NDSU’s string of national championships at five. But more than that, Stick had the “misfortune” of following Brock Jensen and Carson Wentz under center. How do you live up to that standard? Indeed, I once had a media member from the Twin Cities tell me that Stick wasn’t living up to what Jensen  and Wentz did. My reponse: “How could he?”

With Stick being scouted by the NFL and having his name pop into some early 2019 draft analyses, maybe the Bison QB will get some props his senior season — if he plays well and stays healthy. Other FCS quarterbacks like Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud and South Dakota State’s Taryn Christion will likely garner more preseason attention, but the website nfldraftscout.com has Stick rated as a better prospect than both those players.

I asked Bison coach Chris Klieman recently, as others did at the FCS title game press conferences in Frisco, Texas, in January, why Stick doesn’t get more national love. He is, after all, 34-3 as a starter and helped lead the Bison to two national championships (although Wentz came back from an injury to start and win the title game against Jacksonville State after the 2015 season).

“Part of it is the nature of how we play the game here,” Klieman said. “Some people would say we’re a run-first offense. I disagree. We’re a 50-50 offense when the game is in balance. When the game is out of balance and we’re ahead by three scores, we’re going to hand the ball off and get out of the game. We’re throwing it 25-28 times a game. We’re not throwing it 45 times a game.”

Klieman is spot-on, not surprisingly. By a per game average in 2017, Stick averaged 10 completions on 18 attempts for 164.4 yards in 15 games. Sam Houston State’s Jeremiah Briscoe, the FCS’ Walter Payton Award winner as the division’s best player, averaged 24 completions on 41 attempts for 357.4 yards per game. Postseason FCS awards are mostly statistic-based, and Stick — nor any NDSU quarterback — is going to measure up.

It was the same way for Jensen. He was not the best quarterback in FCS during his career at NDSU from 2010-2013, that distinction goes to Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo (recently signed by the San Francisco 49ers for $137.5 million over five years). But Jensen received almost no kudos nationally over the last three years of his career, when he guided the Bison to three national titles. He was named third team All-American his senior year.

Jensen was the 25th-ranked prospect among all college quarterbacks for the 2014 NFL Draft, according to nfldraftscout.com. He was third highest-ranked FCS prospect behind Garoppolo and Cornell’s Jeff Mathews. Stick is currently ranked 19th among all college quarterbacks eligible for the 2019 draft.

Through their junior seasons, Jensen and Stick are similar, statistically. Stick actually outstrips Jensen in a couple of categories.

Through his first three seasons, Jensen was credited with being the main QB in 38 games (including 37 that he started). He played eight games his redshirt freshman year (starting seven) and played 15 games in each of his sophomore and junior seasons.

His three-year numbers are 485 of 795 passing (61 percent) for 5,805 yards and 38 TDs. He threw 14 interceptions. Jensen’s record through those first three seasons was 33-5 (5-3 freshman, 14-1 sophomore, 14-1 junior). The Bison lost in the playoff quarterfinals his freshman season before winning titles the next two seasons.

Stick through his first three seasons was the main QB in 37 games (all starts). He played eight games as a redshirt freshman when Wentz got hurt, 14 as a sophomore and 15 as a junior.

His three-year numbers are 423 of 699 (60.5 percent) for 5,941 yards and 60 TDs. He’s thrown 21 interceptions. Stick’s record through his junior year is 34-3 (8-0 freshman, 12-2 sophomore, 14-1 junior). The Bison won the national title his freshman season (Wentz started the national title game after Stick won the first three playoff games), lost in the semifinals his sophomore season and won the title last season.

Jensen was slight bigger at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds (Stick is 6-2, 220). Stick is more athletic, faster and has a better arm. Jensen was a more physical runner and more accurate with his throws, although he probably had better receivers.

Jensen left NDSU as a legend, perhaps the most-beloved football player of the Division I era (ga-ga fan love for Wentz didn’t begin until the NFL Draft hype of 2016 started and he went No. 2 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles).

Stick, it would seem, is still trying to live up to the bar Jensen and Wentz set — even though there is every reason to believe he is every bit as good as Jensen, has led his team to similar levels of success and will have a similar shot at the NFL.

Like I said: Underappreciated.

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Couple other quick things I learned/was reminded of digging into Stick and Jensen’s stats:

  • While Jensen is credited with the FCS record of 48 wins as a quarterback, only 47 of those came as a starter. He entered a 2010 game early in the second quarter against Morgan State, with the Bison leading. But Morgan State went ahead again before the Bison came back to win. So that is Jensen’s 48th win. The record for wins as a *starting* QB remains at 47. Stick would need to go 14-1 to break the starting QB wins record and finish 48-4. With 15 wins, he would be the all-time wins leader with 49 and pass Jensen. Thanks to NDSU sports information director guy Ryan Perreault for helping clear that up for me.
  • Also, I had forgotten how many times Jensen was injured his redshirt freshman year and really how it wasn’t a great season for him, despite the Bison making a run to the playoff quarterfinals. He battled turf toe after starting a couple of games. It wasn’t clear he would play against Youngstown State because of the turf toe, but he did — and suffered a broken collarbone that was expected to end his season. But Jensen healed quickly enough to play against Missouri State in the regular-season finale (a horrid 3-0 Bison loss) … but left the game with a shoulder strain. Jensen was named the starter for the playoffs and didn’t play particularly well against Robert Morris in a first-round game — then left a victory at Montana State early because of a concussion. He returned the next week in the quarterfinals against Eastern Washington. Whew.
  • Jensen went 5-3 as a freshman, completing 59 of 131 passes (45 percent) with seven TDs and two interceptions. It wasn’t quite the splashy redshirt freshman season Stick had in relief of Wentz.