Kolpack: It was a coming out party for the Bison backup linebackers

CHENEY, Wash. — It looked to be one of those miracle quick-healing stories when North Dakota State linebacker Nick DeLuca warmed up with the rest of his teammates prior to Saturday’s clash with Eastern Washington. Bison fans were sent into a panic, after all, when word of a knee injury suffered in practice surfaced on Friday morning.

Fear of an ACL was natural and who could blame the Bison faithful–it’s been a minor epidemic of sorts in the last month with those three dreaded letters. Worse yet, the thought of a second straight season-ending injury to the NDSU star was enough to make anybody throw up.

In the words of the great Mike Tice, the old Minnesota Vikings coach … “calm down.”

DeLuca didn’t play in the 40-13 trashing of the Eagles in front of a packed Roos Stadium, although it was hard to tell one of the most talented defensive players in the history of the program wasn’t out there.

This was a coming-out party for backup linebackers Dan Marlette and Levi Jordheim. Both are in their fourth year in the program who have slugged away at trying to reach the field for seemingly a decade. They finally got their reward.

“A long time coming,” Marlette said. “I feel like for this to finally come is a great moment. … Three years of watching what Nick does. We couldn’t do it without Nick. He’s a selfless leader and helped out regardless if he was going to play or not.”

The team found out Thursday that DeLuca suffered a knee injury in practice on Wednesday. Whatever happened must not have been initially too concerning but developed over time. The fact DeLuca was dressed and running around was at the least a good sign.

Head coach Chris Klieman said he doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong with DeLuca and said it may be until later in the week before he does.

“Honestly, he wanted to work out, warm up and see if he could play,” Klieman said. “So I think that tells you about the toughness and the character that kid has.”

You could say that about a lot of Bison players against an Eastern Washington team that so far is nowhere near what it was a year ago. Jordheim, from Dickinson, N.D., almost had an interception on the first series and that was a sign of things to come. Marlette, from Vermillion, S.D., finished with four tackles although it seemed like he was always around the ball.

“We’ve seen it in practice all the time and we knew once they got in there they would make plays,” said safety Robbie Grimsley.

Grimsley was also always around the ball, finishing with two interceptions and had his hands on a couple of others. Cornerback Jalen Allison and linebacker Chris Board led the team with five tackles each.

Those three are starters.

After seemingly years, it appears the Bison finally found some depth at linebacker. Klieman has talked about it during spring football in past years but when push came to shove, it was hard to bench the likes of Beck, Littlejohn, Olson, Thorton and Stump.

Eastern Washington head coach Aaron Best watched DeLuca warm up and said he figured there was a chance he was going to play. He also said his team didn’t change its offensive game plan with DeLuca on the sidelines.

“Without him they’re not exactly the same team but they’re still a really, really good outfit on defense,” Best said.

After the first quarter, the Bison were really good times 10. It was a week of practice upheaval for Eastern Washington with the smoke from forest fires moving the Eagles inside to a small fieldhouse and that couldn’t have helped. It was two days of upheaval for the Bison defense with DeLuca going down.

NDSU handled it like a mature football team. The fans were put in a tizzy but the team overcame it with few noticeable problems.

“There is no panic when someone goes down,” Marlette said.