Bison look to improve on worst season in 40 years

Updated: August 8, 2003, 7:58 PM ET

FARGO, N.D. -- A transfer from an NCAA Division I program should give North Dakota State an instant upgrade in its final season of Division II football, players say.

The Bison opened practice Friday with 110 players, perhaps none more important than quarterback Tony Stauss, said junior center Rob Hunt of Cavalier.

"He's the real deal," Hunt said. "He's my roommate, but I never see him because he's either working out or looking at film. He's a great leader."

Stauss, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior from Racine, Wis., started three games last year at Northwestern. He finished the season with 69 completions in 113 passing attempts, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

He's being asked to help the Bison rebound from a 2-8 season and the departure of head coach Bob Babich, who took a job as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Rams.

"It was a little overwhelming at first," Stauss said. "But all I can do is take my strengths and put them on the football field."

Junior free safety Jared Essler of Minot said Stauss is the best quarterback he's seen.

"He can wing it and he makes good decisions," Essler said. "I can't wait to see him in the dome, in front of the home crowd."

Stauss transferred to NDSU in January and was handed the reins on an offense that new head coach Craig Bohl describes as "predictably unpredictable."

"To run that offense you need to have a good triggerman," Bohl said. "Tony improved with each practice in the spring."

Stauss should have an explosive group of receivers, Bohl said, led by transfer Allen Burrell, whom the Bison coach calls the "fastest athlete" in the North Central Conference. The Bison also expect to have another speedster in running back-receiver Terrance Fleming, a junior college transfer.

"Offense sells tickets and defense wins championships," Bohl said. "We need to step it up on defense."

The Bison return 36 lettermen, including nine starters on offense and seven starters on defense. But few jobs are safe, Essler said, especially after coaches recruited five junior college transfers in the offseason.

"If nothing else, that will make guys have to prove themselves all over again," Essler said. "It creates competition within the team and that's only going to make us better."

With plans to move up to Division I next season, this likely will be NDSU's last meeting with many of NCC teams.

"If I was a coaching staff at an opposing NCC school, I'd build it up," Essler said. "You've got this Division II powerhouse, leaving the level and moving up, and you've got that last shot to beat them.

"If it's possible to come off a 2-8 season and have a bull's-eye on your back, I guess you could say that would be a little bit true."

The Bison open the season on Aug. 30 at the Fargodome against Tusculum of Greeneville, Tenn.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index