UND football hopes a healthy defense means better results in 2018
GRAND FORKS—The University of North Dakota football team made it to Media Day on Monday, Aug. 6, mostly healthy.
That shouldn't be a noteworthy accomplishment as the annual event at the Alerus Center takes place in early August. But after the way the 2017 season unfolded, staying healthy through Media Day is a significant achievement.
The Fighting Hawks are hoping a healthier roster, as well as some notable additions through recruiting, will allow UND to return to the status of playoff contender.
After back-to-back winning seasons in 2015 and 2016, the Fighting Hawks went from the preseason favorites in the Big Sky Conference and a Top 10 FCS program to a disappointing 3-8 finish in 2017.
"Last year was unfortunate with the injuries, but it's a learning process with the young guys," UND senior cornerback Deion Harris said. "In a way, last year set us up for this year. Throwing those young guys in the fire teaches them a lot. I think this year is going to be our biggest year yet."
By Media Day in 2017, Harris, a 6-foot-3 All-American and NFL draft prospect, was already considered out for the season after tearing his Achilles in a July conditioning drill.
With four practices already in hand this season, UND defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt said Harris doesn't have any injury restrictions this fall.
"I kind of surprised myself a little bit," said Harris, who returned three of his five interceptions for touchdowns in 2016. "I didn't think I'd be able to play at such a high level this early. I thought I'd have to grind and get back into it later (in fall camp). This is the best I've seen myself play."
UND only received four starts a year ago out of the team's anticipated starting corners. With Harris missing the whole season, the Fighting Hawks were further set back when Evan Holm was only able to play in four games due to injury. Holm is back to full-go at practice this fall, too.
In addition to corner, UND was decimated at inside linebacker. Expected regulars Connor O'Brien, Donnell Rodgers, Cam Hunt and Noah Larson were all injured at that position last year.
Rodgers was injured in a Week 2 rout of Missouri State. He didn't play the rest of the season but is back to full health this fall.
"We were disappointed with how that went down last year because Game 1 to Game 2 and Year 1 to Year 2, he had taken on such a leadership role," Schmidt said. "He knew it went from Will Ratelle to Connor O'Brien, then it was going to be Donnell Rodgers. He's very well-respected in our locker room. He carries weight, and not just with the coaches but with his peers."
As the injury list grew last year, UND's communication struggled.
"It set us back physically as much as it did mentally," Schmidt said. "We had trouble making checks and communicating on the field. A week before, the guys who had to communicate now, hadn't done much of that their entire career."
As the Hawks turn the page to 2018, Schmidt said inside linebacker is now a position of strength.
"It's probably our deepest spot," Schmidt said. "We thought Noah could come in here and help us last year. He's 365 days older, but he's years ahead mentally from a year ago."
Minnesota Gophers transfer Ev Williams will see a lot of playing time at inside backer, as well, Schmidt said.
With cornerbacks and inside linebacker positions revamped, UND's defensive concern in 2018 shifts to depth at defensive line and safety. Although the backups are unproven, the Hawks are high on the three starters at defensive line—Mason Bennett, Tank Harris and Austin Cieslak.
Bennett added another 15-20 pounds this offseason, and the 6-foot-4 defensive end from Winnipeg is now 262 pounds.
"I feel awesome right now," Bennett said. "This year, we're really focused on playing tough, physical defense."