UND’s Cieslak anticipating expanded role in senior season
GRAND FORKS — University of North Dakota defensive ends Drew Greely and Brandon Dranka were seniors in 2017. The two played as true freshman in coach Bubba Schweigert’s first season and started nearly all four years.
Defensive end Austin Cieslak, a raw athlete from Hazen, North Dakota, was also in the first recruiting class for Schweigert in 2014. Now, after redshirting his first season and relegated to reserve duty behind Greely and Dranka the years after that, Cieslak is projected as a starter in 2018, and his position coach thinks he could have a big year.
“Any time you lose two like that, basically four-year starters, it hurts a little bit,” UND defensive line coach Jordan Gigli said. “But we have guys like Cieslak who have played a ton of football for us. That’s the benefit of rotating guys when they’re younger.”
Cieslak is hoping to pick up right where he left off a year ago. He had six and eight tackles, respectively, in UND’s final two games of the season, accounting for 14 of his 23 tackles during the year.
Cieslak has played in more than 30 games in his career and started the first two games of his career late last year.
“The biggest thing for him was he has struggled to stay healthy,” Gigli said. “Right now, he looks as good as he has. He lost a little bit of weight. He’s strong. He’s a different guy. He’s 285 pounds and can play the edge. He provides a different aspect playing the run, but he can also play the pass.
“The sky is the limit for him. If he can stay healthy and consistently play physical, he has a chance to be a very, very good defensive end.”
The 6-foot-3 Cieslak is trimmed down, from 300 pounds a year ago to about 285.
“I’m super excited for the season,” Cieslak said. “It’s a lot different not having Dranka and Drew. It’s a different role now, trying to help our younger guys. It’s more of a leadership role.”
Aside from trimming weight, Cieslak said he’s focusing his offseason on refining the little things in his game.
“The scheme is easier now when you’re older,” he said. “So I’ve had a real technical focus.”
Along with Cieslak, UND is expected to start Mason Bennett at the other defensive end spot and Tank Harris in the middle of the Fighting Hawks’ 3-4 defensive alignment.
With the starters and backup nose guard Steve Greer, UND has four players who have seen considerable playing time.
Gigli said his focus is developing the next four or five players to round out the team’s depth.
“I’m excited where we’re at,” Gigli said. “But you have to find those five, six, seven and eight guys.”