Reclaiming the reputation: UND’s starting inside linebackers are back to plug the middle

GRAND FORKS — Under University of North Dakota football coach Bubba Schweigert and defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt, the Fighting Hawks quickly developed a run-stopping reputation in this coaching staff’s five-year tenure.
In 2016, UND gave up less than 92 yards rushing per game, which was best in the Big Sky Conference and No. 6 in the nation.
Then came the 2017 preseason, where the storyline was that then-sophomore Donnell Rodgers and then-true freshman Noah Larson were set to be first-year starters and continue the tradition of strong run-stopping linebackers at UND.
By practice No. 10 of fall camp, however, Larson dislocated a kneecap and used his redshirt season. During a Week 2 win over Missouri State, Rodgers suffered a high-ankle injury that made him miss the rest of the season.
With Rodgers and Larson now healthy and reunited in the middle, the 2018 Hawks defense hopes it can prove last year’s 3-8 record and nearly 188 rushing yards per game allowed are statistical outliers.
“Nobody liked how last season went,” Rodgers said. “It gives a salty taste in our mouth. We want to come back harder.”
Of UND’s top five inside linebackers on this fall’s depth chart (Rodgers, Larson, Tyron Vrede, Cam Hunt and Ev Williams), there’s only eight games played for UND last year between them.
With the results from a year ago, that’s probably a good thing.
Rodgers, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, sat out spring ball recovering from the injury but has been full-go at fall camp.
“It was important to get (Rodgers) mentally locked in there and on the same page as the guys who were able to play all last year,” UND inside linebackers coach Carl Reinholz said. “Physically, he’s running around well. We’re pleased with how he’s progressed.”
Larson, at 6-2, 230, has started to show why he was a highly praised recruit out of Baraboo, Wis.
“We’re really liking how he’s coming along,” Reinholz said. “He’s got the right body type and moves well with it. The way we want to play, we want to play downhill. You can’t be light there. We’re trying to get bigger, but there’s a mix you need between big enough and able to move.”
UND, with some help from last year’s injury bug, has created some depth inside, as well. There’s no better proof of that than the case of sophomore walk-on Jake Rastas, who led UND with 73 tackles last year. With a healthy roster, a few transfers and some redshirts ready to push for playing time, Rastas will be in a battle to make the travel squad in 2018.
The No. 2s inside include Cam Hunt, who played in the second half of last season after recovering from an injury, and Tyron Vrede, a junior college transfer from the Netherlands.
University of Minnesota graduate transfer Ev Williams (6-1, 250), who appeared in 24 games and had three starts with the Gophers, is also expected to be a factor in the run-stopping game for the Hawks.