UND football hoping to bring back run-stopping staple
GRAND FORKS — When Bubba Schweigert took over the head football coaching job at the University of North Dakota prior to the 2014 season, one of his first orders of business was to overhaul the program’s run defense.
Results were nearly immediate. After giving up 188.1 yards on the ground per game in Chris Mussman’s last season in 2013, Schweigert’s teams followed with averages of 102.5 in 2014, 100.1 in 2015 and 91.3 in 2016.
The run-stopping expectation was set as UND’s record improved, moving from 5-7 in Schweigert’s first year to 7-4 in his second year and 9-3 in his third.
However, then came an injury-ravaged 2017 season that sent the program from a preseason Top 10 ranking to a floundering 3-8 year.
During that 2017 season, UND gave up 187.9 yards rushing per game — a nearly identical figure to the pre-Schweigert Era.
As UND hits the midway point of spring practices at the High Performance Center, the Fighting Hawks are focusing on proving that 2017’s run defense was a statistical outlier.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Schweigert said. “We have to look at how teams are attacking us. We have to look at what we can control to get better. It’s challenging nowadays with the quarterback run game. It’s different than it was in the 80’s and 90’s. But we feel we can improve a great deal.”
Stopping the run will be a full defensive effort, but the way UND’s 3-4 defense is structured, many of the tackling opportunities land with the team’s inside linebackers — an area smacked with injuries in 2017.
This offseason, UND has overhauled its inside linebacking corps, both through recruiting and a return to health.
A year ago, UND starting inside linebacker Connor O’Brien retired from injuries, while promising freshman Noah Larson was injured in fall camp, expected starter Donnell Rodgers suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2 and Cam Hunt, who would have been counted on significantly early in the year, dealt with a lingering injury that carried midway into the season.
Through spring ball, UND is showing off new depth at inside linebacker. Larson and Hunt are back from injuries and Rodgers is expected back in the fall.
In addition, UND added Minnesota graduate transfer Ev Williams and junior college transfer Tyron Vrede, a Netherlands native, to the group.
“I think Ev will help a ton,” UND nose guard Tank Harris said. “He’s a meatier guy coming downhill. He’s got some dog in him. Those big hits turn into turnovers.”
But UND’s return to health, recruiting and previous track record of run-stopping success doesn’t have the Fighting Hawks relaxed by any means.
“I feel like everybody has the same thought process,” Harris said. “In the morning, when you’re tired and don’t feel like practicing … we were 3-8. We have to do better. We’ve set the expectations and are working toward those every day.”
Through half of spring ball, UND’s defense has remained mostly healthy.
“That’s No. 1,” Harris said. “A lot of guys are taking more time to stretch and take care of their body because you only get one of them.”
In order to improve the run game statistics, Schweigert said his team needs to improve on its assignments, play more physical and rediscover its confidence.
“We felt we added some guys to our roster that will help us play physical,” Schweigert said. “It’s a mentality, too. You have to have that through winter and spring, so come fall you’re ready to do it.
“When you look at teams in the past, when you get good at stopping the run, you believe you can do it against each opponent. You build confidence by executing.”