Earlier this week, we took at look at the offense of the North Dakota Fighting Hawks, now we move to the other side of the ball and breakdown their defense. This is a physical, aggressive defense the can stop the run, allowing under 100 yards rushing per game last season. They run a 3-4 defense and frequently have one or more linebackers standing up at the ends of the defensive line
The defensive headliner is senior safety Cole Reyes, a preseason All-American and the 2016 Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. He also has his name on a few watch lists as well including the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List (FCS Defensive POY), and Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List (he is one of 31 FCS players on that watch list). Reyes plays strong safety a bit like Chase Hansen, where he is often in the box to help stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Last season, he recorded 70 tackles, 6.5 of which were tackles for loss. He also had 1.5 sacks and three interceptions.
Another name to know in the secondary is sophomore cornerback Torrey Harris. Harris started last season as a true freshman and was second in the FCS among freshman in passes defended with 13 (three interceptions and 10 pass break ups). Hunt also had 46 tackles and one tackle for loss. The Fighting Hawks secondary took a blow when they lost cornerback Deion Harris to a season-ending injury. Harris led the team last year with five interceptions.
North Dakota has good size overall in the secondary. Reyes is 215 pounds and stands 6’ 2”. Both starting cornerbacks are 6’ 1” or taller.
At the linebacker position, 2016 leading tackler Dylan Bakker has graduated. Fellow linebackers Jawon Johnson and Brian Labat also graduated. Strong inside linebacker Donnell Rodgers is back after recording 38 tackles, 6.0TFL, and 3.0 sacks last season. Weak inside linebacker Jake Disterhaupt is another name to know. He has 99 career tackles in 35 career games, including 11 starts. This young group got even younger after senior captain Connor O’Brien retired from football due to injuries in the spring.
Their linebackers lack the size of most FBS linebackers. Three of the four starting linebackers weigh 215 pounds or less. Only Rodgers tips the scales at more than that at 235 pounds. North Dakota lost their four top tackling linebackers from 2016, so this is a group that will be counting on guys to step into much larger roles.
The defensive line is anchored in the middle by Tank Harris. The reason for his nickname Tank is fantastic: as a young child, he liked to run into refrigerators. Harris is a 6’ 3” 290-pound nose tackle who eats up blocks. Joining Harris on the defensive line is experience defensive end Brandon Dranka. Dranka has appeared in all 35 of North Dakota’s games the past three seasons. He has started 23-consecutive games at defensive end. The starting defensive ends weigh 240 and 250 pounds. The line is a bit undersized, especially for a three-man front, but they are quick.
This defense reminds me a bit of how Arizona State plays defense. Both defenses bring a variety of different blitzes. Utah will see a variety of slants, curls, and twists from this pressure happy defense. They primarily play zone coverage to keep their eyes on the quarterback and try to force interceptions. They want to try to make Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley uncomfortable.
The flip side of their defense taking chances with pressure is that they do give up some long pass plays. I think the offensive approach has to be to soften up the front with some pass plays and then the offensive line can start to establish their will on the smaller UND front seven as the game wears on to open up running lanes.