Rodgers is UND's new man in the middle
The way UND’s defense is structured, opposing running backs are funneled to the middle of the field and an inside linebacker is most likely to lead the team in tackles.
In 2015, it was senior Will Ratelle with 110 tackles. In 2016, it was senior Dylan Bakker with 98.
Trying to replace an all-Big Sky Conference performer at inside linebacker is nothing new to UND and that has the Fighting Hawks’ coaching staff confident in the transition to promising sophomore Donnell Rodgers.
Rodgers will be asked to man one of the two middle spots for a defense expected to once again be one of the best in the Big Sky. In 2016, UND gave up less than 92 yards rushing per game which was best in the Big Sky and No. 6 in the nation.
Rodgers, who’s 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, saw action in a reserve role as a freshman last season. He had 38 tackles, including six for a loss and three sacks. He also forced and recovered a fumble.
With the graduation of Bakker and the injury retirement of position mate Connor O’Brien, Rodgers will be asked to shoulder a lot of that missing production from 2016.
“Skill-set wise, he’s what we want,” UND defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt said. “He’s bigger, physical and moves well. We’re trying to get him to play more violently, but he’s got all the skills we want.”
Rodgers played exclusively running back at Woodbury High School in Minnesota, where his prep squad won a combined three games during his senior and junior seasons. With the lack of prep team success, UND was Rodgers’ only offer.
He said the transition to linebacker was difficult at first, but he’s gained confidence at his new spot.
“I’m feeling more comfortable making calls and checks,” Rodgers said. “It’s cool for me to be in a leadership role. I think I’m taking it well. I’m having a great time.”
With Rodgers a lock to start, the real battle at fall camp will be for the No. 2 spots behind Rodgers and Jake Disterhaupt, a converted outside linebacker, who is expected to take snaps at both linebacker spots in 2017.
Oscar Nevermann, Dijon Murray, Jake Rastas, Jake Geier and Noah Larson are all in the mix for playing time at backup inside linebacker.
“There’s definitely some talent,” Schmidt said. “That’s not the issue for us. It’s just guys gaining experience and repetitions. As we do that, guys will gain confidence.
“There’s huge competition at the twos. It’s wide open. Those guys not only will play on defense, but special teams, too. If those guys can stay healthy, they’ll get enough reps to be ready for Game 1.”