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Pinto's Pre-Season Preview: They Hold The Keys

by Dan Gunderson

The North Dakota State University football team is six weeks (!) away from kicking off against the Iowa State Cyclones in Ames, Iowa on Saturday, August 30. Please, control your giddiness.

These six weeks are sometimes the longest for college football fans as we wait for the real games to begin. It also is some of the best times to throw out all kinds of predictions.

I am taking these six weeks to get us all ready for the Bison's 2014 football campaign.

Every Friday, starting today and running up to August 29, I will be giving you a preview on different parts of the NDSU football team. Defense, offense, a group of players, a stretch of games, etc...

This week's edition of Pinto's Pre-Season Preview six players that will have biggest impact on NDSU fortunes this season.

#20 Colten Heagle - Senior Strong Safety

We start with a defensive player because... Do I really need to explain? Heagle is the team's most dynamic defensive player and as he goes, so does the defense. My favorite memory of Heagle is the 15 tackles, nine solo, he had against Georgia Southern in the 2011 FCS Playoff's Semi-Final. That performance really made Heagle a star and fan favorite.

What makes Heagle so dangerous is his ability to play as a fourth linebacker at times. He had 85 tackles last season and was a constant threat in derailing the opposing team's running game. You may see him be more disruptive in the backfield in 2014 as NDSU tries to figure out their interior line situation.

Heagle's play is important to the team's defensive success because he can make a team one dimensional. NDSU may be easier to pass against this season without the shutdown presence of Marcus Williams but they won't be any easier to run against with Heagle patrolling the field.

#9 Esley Thorton - Senior Linebacker

Yes, Travis Beck and Carlton Littlejohn are the two best players at the linebacking position. However, it is Thorton who will be the player we will pay the most attention to. You know what you are going to get from Beck and Littlejohn. We are still unsure about Thorton.

He played in all 15 games last season, starting in four, and made 44 tackles. He needs to be as stable on the outside as Beck and Littlejohn have been. Even after Grant Olson went down with an injury last year, the Bison elected to start Bryan Shepherd over Thorton for a handful of games.

For Thorton's sake, he wants to put to rest any doubt about his abilities. He has two highly touted linebackers right behind him in the depth chart in Pierre Gee-Tucker and Nick DeLuca. NDSU has been stable at linebacker for the last three seasons. Thorton needs to continue that trend.

#53 Kyle Emanuel - Senior Defensive End

Emanue led the team in sacks, tackles for loss and blocked kicks last season. He also had eight quarterback hurries and generally wreaked havoc in the backfield. He also played along side Ryan Drevlow, Cole Jirik and Leevon Perry last season. Those players are all gone now.

That leaves Emanuel left to continue the terror that was the NDSU defensive line. It won't be easy. Most teams will try and temper his pass rushing attack by having a tight end line up on his side pretty consistently, chipping Emanuel on passing plays or just providing a double team on him with the tackle.

If Emanuel can continue his pass rushing ways, it will take pressure off the defensive coach thinking he may need to send an extra defender in the form of a blitz. The core of NDSU's defensive success came from the defensive line the last few years and Emanuel will be the biggest reason that success continues.

#23 John Crockett - Senior Running Back

John Crockett ran for an average of 1,157.5 yards per season the last two years. What makes that number even more impressive is that he wasn't even the leading rusher on his own team the past two years.

The Bison have been spoiled with balance at the running back position for the past three seasons and will make efforts to try and replicate that formula. However, because of the lack of experience behind Crockett, you may see him get more carries this season than in years past.

Get excited about this fans. Crockett has the ability at running back to take over games. The Bison love to establish the running game and will be looking to protect quarterback Carson Wentz as he gets his feet wet being a first time starter. Be prepared for plenty of the Tasmanian Devil.

#59 Joe Haeg - Junior Offensive Lineman

Why is just one offensive lineman important? Haeg is the team's only returning starter on the offensive line. So, yeah. He is important. I've written at length about the success NDSU has had at the running game and how it is directly tied into the consistent play from the o-line. That trend needs to continue for the Bison.

Now, NDSU enters into a season where it will be all new names. Haeg not only needs his play to be consistently excellent, be he will need to be come the defacto offensive line coach on the field for this team.

Throwing in a new quarterback doesn't make things easier on the offensive line, but the hope is that the group will grow together as the season moves along. However, game one in Ames, a group of wide eyed and inexperienced players will be looking towards Haeg for stability. He needs to bring it.

#11 Carson Wentz - Junior Quarterback

There was no doubt that Brock Jensen was last year's offensive MVP. No one is expecting Wentz to be as good as he was last year, but they are expecting him to be as smart.

Jensen would rarely took chances last season, usually electing to go with the safe play and let the chips fall where they may. Wentz needs to remember to play the same way if he wants to be successful.

He has a solid running back, a great defense and a top notch punter at his disposal. The stat that I will look for as the year goes along to see if Wentz is doing well won't be passing yards or touchdowns. It will be the team's third down conversion rate. A stat that went from 29 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2013.

Keeping the team on the field means you are usually making the right plays at quarterback.