Marcus Williams was the outlier on the 2009 Hopkins High School basketball team, choosing college football, while Royce White and the other three starters from that 31-0 state championship squad went the Division I basketball route.
No Big Ten teams offered Williams a scholarship, so he walked on at North Dakota State. Now he's a junior cornerback, a two-time All-America, an NFL prospect and a big reason NDSU will challenge for a second consecutive national championship Saturday in Frisco, Texas.
The Bison (13-1) meet Sam Houston State (11-3) at noon in a rematch of last year's Football Championship Subdivision title game, which NDSU won 17-6.
"Nationally, [last year's championship] game was a surprise because I don't think people knew anything about North Dakota State or what we were about," Williams said.
Sam Houston State was undefeated heading into last year's matchup, averaging 39.1 points per game. But with Williams providing his usual blanket coverage, the Bison played suffocating defense, as they have so many times in going 27-2 over the past two seasons.
After winning eight Division II titles, NDSU made the move to Division I-AA in 2004. That level is now FCS, and 10th-year Bison coach Craig Bohl has built a powerhouse. He signed an eight-year extension this week after being named the Eddie Robinson FCS Coach of the Year.
Minnesotans hold 15 of the 44 spots on NDSU's two-deep roster. Williams and Billy Turner, a 6-6, 300-pound junior tackle from Mounds View, are both considered prospects for the 2014 NFL draft. Grant Olson, a junior middle linebacker from Wayzata, recorded a school record 29 tackles in the Bison's quarterfinal victory over Wofford. He was hospitalized early last week because of a swollen appendix but avoided surgery and is expected to play Saturday.
Former Minneapolis North quarterback Carlton Littlejohn is an outside linebacker and the Bison's third-leading tackler. He electrified the Fargodome with a last-minute blocked field goal that capped a 23-20 victory over Georgia Southern in the semifinals.
"It was one of the biggest plays of the year, and it couldn't happen at a better time," Williams said.
Littlejohn and Williams grew up playing together at North Commons Park, across the street from North High School. Littlejohn stuck with North's dwindling football program, even as Williams and other top athletes fled to suburban high schools. Williams was a three-year starter at receiver and defensive back for Hopkins, as well as a two-time all-conference point guard.
"When I chose football, a lot of people didn't understand why I did it," Williams said. "It was a hard decision, but I think I made the right choice."
Williams came home and showed off his skills at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 24, 2011, scoring two defensive touchdowns to help lead NDSU over the Gophers 37-24. Williams has five interceptions this year and 16 for his career. The totals could be higher, but opposing quarterbacks are careful to avoid him.
"His freshman year, he was kind of a breakout guy," Littlejohn said. "You didn't really know much about him; you could just see he was a good athlete. After last year, I mean, he just put his name on the map making plays."
Williams is part of a defense that leads the FCS in fewest points allowed, at 11.4 per game. NDSU's one loss came against Indiana State on Oct. 13. Sam Houston State has played a tougher schedule, with losses to Baylor (48-23), Central Arkansas (24-20) and Texas A&M (47-28).
Like last year's title clash between NDSU and Sam Houston State, this game is a sellout at 20,000-seat FC Dallas Stadium.
"I've seen tickets going on StubHub for big money," Williams said. "I told my parents, 'Hey there's only a few guys who can get tickets, and for the other people, I'm sorry.' But the game's on TV, so they can watch it there."