FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State held is annual media day Wednesday, and for the first time in six years the festivities were not centered on defending a national championship.
Coach Chris Klieman said it doesn’t feel any different even though the Bison are coming off a season that ended in the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision and snapped a record run of five straight FCS titles. The loss to James Madison was their first playoff setback since 2010.
“Absolutely nothing, in my opinion,” Klieman said Wednesday when asked about the difference between chasing a title and defending one. “It’s business as usual. It’s practice one. It’s a new football team and this is the 2017 Bison.”
Two of the team’s top defensive players, linebacker Nick DeLuca and defensive tackle Nate Tanguay, were a bit more excited than their coach. They went down with injuries last season and watched the playoff loss from the bench.
“I’m excited to get back after it. It’s tough to sit back and watch when you can’t contribute,” DeLuca said
“I barely slept, honestly, the night before the first practice,” Tanguay said. “I was just so happy to be back and be around the guys. Sometimes my face doesn’t show it and I can be a little stoic, but it means so much to me to be a part of this program.”
DeLuca was the only FCS player nominated last year for the Butkus Award, presented annually to the top linebacker in college football. He played only three games as a senior last season, the last two of them in a brace after injuring his shoulder. Although he had inquiries from NFL teams, he applied and was granted hardship status to play another season.
“My main focus is this last year, because this is all I’m guaranteed,” DeLuca said. “Anything after that is a bonus.”
Tanguay started the first nine games but suffered a season-ending knee injury against Youngstown State. He and DeLuca became rehabilitation partners during the offseason, although Tanguay’s first workout consisted of lying on his back and placing his legs against the wall to stretch his knee.
“There were really days that I did get down,” Tanguay said. “Nick and I went through a lot together. We’ve been there for each other to talk about what we felt, what we wanted to do and the things we wanted to do in the future.”
DeLuca and Tanguay, who are being touted for all-American honors, are part of a defensive line and linebacker corps that Klieman says has the most depth in the seven years he has been with the program, the last four as head coach.
“I think we can play eight or nine guys up front and seven or eight guys at linebacker that we feel really good about,” Klieman said.
The Bison return junior quarterback Easton Stick, who is 20-2 as a starter, as well as a talented group of running backs and receivers. Only two starters are back on the offensive line. One of those, senior right guard Austin Kuhnert, said there’s no cause for alarm.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are willing to come out and compete and be able to win on Saturdays,” Kuhnert said. “We’ve got more to play for this year. We’ve got to make a point that the Bison are still here and we’re still as good as ever.”
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