UND's deep group of tight ends understand their role

The Fighting Hawks open the 2022 FCS playoffs Saturday with a 3 p.m. first-round game at Weber State in Ogden, Utah.

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UND's Jaden Norby reacts as Brady Stevens hits a 35 yard field goal in the second quarter against Missouri State Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022 at the Alerus Center.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — The tight ends UND uses primarily as blockers were high-producing stars in high school.

Jack Ihry rushed for more than 5,100 yards at Hope-Page High School in North Dakota. Jaden Norby ran for more than 1,300 yards at West Central Area-Ashby in Minnesota. Trae Steckler was a basketball and football standout at Mandan. Max Gunderson threw for more than 2,100 yards at Detroit Lakes.

The role for that group at UND, however, is different. Those four are typically asked to protect Fighting Hawks quarterback Tommy Schuster and open holes for UND running backs Tyler Hoosman and Isaiah Smith.

"I kind of do more of the dirty work, and that's what I can do to help the team," Steckler said. "At the end of the day, that's probably more blocking. But you have to accept that role and perfect your craft."

UND fans will likely see each of those tight ends Saturday when the Fighting Hawks open the FCS playoffs at 3 p.m. against Weber State in Ogden, Utah.


Those tight ends accepting those roles is vital to a program.

"The biggest thing for the offense is team-first; they're team-first guys," UND offensive coordinator Danny Freund said. "They're willing to do whatever role they have for the betterment of the team, whether that's special teams or blocking. Whatever it is, they work hard at it and understand the importance of football as a team sport."

Adam Zavalney has been UND's pass-catching tight end the past couple of seasons. This year, he has 17 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns.

The Fighting Hawks will play quite a few tight ends but the others haven't figured into the passing game much this season. Nordby has two catches for 34 yards, Steckler has one catch for 3 yards and Ihry has one catch for 2 yards.

"It's always hard because there's one football," Freund said. "You're trying to maximize your potential. But the main thing is you need guys who trust the coaches, own their role and develop as football players. What you're seeing on offense is a bunch of guys who are unselfish and do what's best for the team and sometimes that's not what's best for themselves. But they've been mentally tough with that, and that's a fun part of this year as a coach is to see guys who buy in to that team-first mentality."

Steckler, for example, has been with the program for five seasons. He caught his first career catch two weeks ago in the Alerus Center against South Dakota. It was a first-down grab on a screen play.

It was a screen play former offensive lineman Matt Waletzko ran once against Idaho State and current offensive lineman Donny Ventrelli also ran this year. Waletzko and Ventrelli were roommates with Steckler.

"I texted them and said I'm getting in because you guys couldn't," Steckler said. "I got the first down, and I did what I could for the team."


That's a theme for Steckler, who has embraced his position with the Fighting Hawks.

"At the end of the day, the transition from high school to college is about accepting your role," Steckler said. "You have to accept that role, show up every day and good things are going to happen. It's a big reward for me. The work I've put in for five years is paying off. It's about waiting your time. You put your head down and work to the best of your ability."

The Hawks enter the matchup with Weber State searching for the program's first Division I road playoff victory.

"It's a good opportunity for us, and it's a test, and we're up for that test," Steckler said. "We're going to have fun this week, practice to the best of our ability and give it our all."

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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