Fargo

That didn’t take long. The interception that Jabril Cox returned for a touchdown last week was a play that North Dakota State fans saw over the course of three years and it came early in the second quarter in the season opener.

The issue for Bison fans is Cox plays for LSU.

Derrek Tuszka plays for the Denver Broncos. Marquise Bridges is trying to play for some pro team. James Hendricks just made plays.

They were like a band, call them The Playmakers, that delivered nearly every game. They no longer roam the Bison locker room halls in the lower level of Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. If there is one burning question heading into the season opener, and fall closer, against Central Arkansas on Saturday it is this: Who are going to be the playmakers on defense?

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“A lot of guys are going to have to realize that, I have to realize that,” said noseguard Costner Ching. “I’m excited to see the new names that come out of that, names people haven’t heard of. I’m excited to see those guys step up and be big-time players.”

A lot of praise has been showered on Bison coaches over the years for how they’ve led this team to eight FCS national titles in nine years. They’ve been good at halftime adjustments, game planning, practice and off-season workouts. I’ve taken issue with some clock management issues over the years but I also sit near the rafters eating a chicken sandwich.

Perhaps an overlooked coaching staple has been putting the right players in the right positions. That can’t be easy and the consequences are enormous.

Take the walk-on tight ends from small towns. Ching came from Castlewood, S.D. Defensive tackle Matt Biegler came from Underwood, Minn.

They are now the starting big guys in the middle on defense. If a team isn’t good there, it can be a long night in stopping the run.

This week, Ching gave thanks to defensive line coach Nick Goeser for sticking with him during the position switch.

“He gives everybody their shot and plays no favorites in that,” Ching said. “He finds out the toughest guys in that group, he runs with them and he works with them. I was really glad he was patient with me because I struggled the first couple weeks there changing from tight end to the defensive line. He hung with me and didn’t give up on me. He gives everyone their shot and you have to capitalize on that.”

And Ching knows it’s time to capitalize on replacing The Playmakers. Hendricks secured the national title last year with an interception near the goal line. Cox was Cox, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound machine.

Tuszka was a threat to destroy a quarterback on every pass play. Bridges made perhaps the defensive play of the game in the national title game in 2017 with a pick near the goal line against JMU.

Who are the leading candidates to take over? I like James Kaczor at outside linebacker, a tough dude with speed. Tony Pierce has an engine at defensive end. Josh Hayes is the new shutdown cornerback, replacing Bridges. Michael Tutsie is an all-conference strong safety.

For an outside candidate, look no farther than freshman backup free safety Dom Jones. He’s 6-2 and 191 pounds. I saw him outside the Bison locker room last year and wondered if a Clemson player got lost finding his school and ended up in Fargo.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth and a lot of good things from younger guys,” Tutsie said. “I’ve seen a lot of mental growth from all of them.”

I’ve seen a lot of good Bison defenses over the years. It’s the blueprint to a title. It’s done with strong guys up front and playmakers everywhere else.

Central Arkansas is just one game, but it could also be a sign of things to come next spring when the Missouri Valley Football Conference plays its eight games.

If NDSU is going to be in Frisco, Texas in the heat in May, the formula includes defensive players who switch the momentum of an outcome on one play.

The Playmakers.