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In the FCS Huddle: Different spring approaches for FCS finalists

They may have played each other in the FCS championship game this past season, but there's a distinct difference between the spring practices at reigning national champion North Dakota State and Sam Houston State.

Sam Houston State is trying speed play up while the champion Bison are forced to slow it down a bit.

Both teams believe they have enough talent to get back to championship week in Frisco, Texas, but Sam Houston State clearly is more certain about who would lead it there.

North Dakota State, which won its first FCS crown with a 17-6 victory in Sam Houston State's backyard, is replacing 11 influential seniors who started in the national title game, including both kickers.

Sam Houston State, on the other hand, is replacing only five starters, including kicker Craig Alaniz. Ten returning Bearkats have at least 20 career starts.

If the two programs are connected at this time of the year, it's that each has a new coordinator getting acclimated in his new position.

The transition is smoother at North Dakota State, where head coach Craig Bohl promoted defensive backs coach Chris Klieman after one season to defensive coordinator.

Klieman replaced Scottie Hazelton, who became linebackers coach at Southern California, but has plenty of experience as a defensive coordinator in the Missouri Valley Football Conference at rival Northern Iowa. The Bison secondary was outstanding under Klieman last season as the team finished first in the FCS in scoring defense.

At Sam Houston State, head coach Willie Fritz knew before the national title game that offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse and offensive line coach Derek Warehime would be leaving the program to join Bob Davie's first-year staff at New Mexico. He later lost assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Jeff Conway to Texas State.

The Bearkats' new offensive coordinator is Doug Ruse, who came over from Western Illinois and will try to improve on last season's offense, which had led the FCS in scoring until it fell flat against North Dakota State.

Each team has needs as they go through spring practices, but NDSU's seem a little more pressing.

The areas of concern that are foremost for the Bison:

*The receivers. Starting quarterback Brock Jensen is returning, both his go-to wide receiver Warren Holloway and tight end Matt Veldman, an NFL prospect, are hard to replace talent-wise. Ryan Smith is a small, but reliable wideout. The other key receivers, Zach Vraa and Trevor Gebhart, are being asked to rise to a whole new level after having injuries throughout the last two seasons.

*The kickers. Gone are place-kicker Ryan Jastram and athletic punter Matt Voigtlander, in are sophomore-to-be Adam Keller and redshirt freshman Ben LeCompte. It's a work in progress.

*Linebackers. The Bison lost their two leading tacklers, Chad Willson and Preston Evans. They return the most outstanding performer from the national championship game, Travis Beck, and experienced backups in Carlton Littlejohn, Grant Olson and Don Carter. The question is, who will take the emotional leadership role in the middle of the defense?

"We believe in just hard-nosed work ethics," said Bohl, who is confident in his returning talent. "We're going to play defense and run the football and work on turnover margin. I think that's the hallmark of our program. I know in today's age of scoring tons of points and spread offenses and all these other things that we're a little bit of throw-back, blue-collar team, and it worked this year."

Fritz's returning talent at Sam Houston State almost seems illegal because it's so good, but even he admits his team needs improvement this season. His Southland Conference champion is set to face an upgraded non-conference schedule, including trips to Baylor and Texas A&M.

"We need to throw the ball better," Fritz said. "I don't know if we ever played where we were behind more than one score in the whole season except for that ball game (against North Dakota State). We threw the ball efficiently this year, but we need to do a better job of throwing the ball and expanding our passing attack. That's going to be a really big goal for us in the offseason."

Quarterback Brian Bell returns along with his top receivers, Richard Sincere and Torrance Williams, so the Bearkats figure to get better in the passing game, although they will remain a run-first team.

Some of their areas of focus this spring:

*The new assistant coaches. In addition to Ruse, the Bearkats have added Bart Tatum (offensive line) and Matt Barrett (wide receivers), so all the new coaches and the players are getting accustomed to each other and working together in their system. The Bearkats have worked on using the no-huddle, which will make their overall team speed even more dangerous. Wind 'em up.

*Offensive line. First-team All-Southland center Travis Watson and left guard Chris Crockett are big losses for the Bearkats. But the line rotated eight players, so it should be able to keep a high level of play.

*Polishing up the defense. The Bearkats probably can't expect to have the FCS- high 42 turnovers they helped themselves to this past season, so defensive coordinator Scott Stoker is charged with making his unit more efficient across-the-board. In their 4-2-5 alignment, starting linebackers Will Henry and David Kash were departing seniors. However, they also did plenty of rotating at the position, mixing in seniors-to-be Darius Taylor and Eric Fiello.

Sam Houston State is working toward its annual spring game on April 18. North Dakota State's will be held April 21.

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