FARGO — James Kaczor is a safety with the North Dakota State football team who plays linebacker. Maybe he’s more of a safebacker. Or a linety.
Whatever the position, the sophomore is seeing more of the field lately, and the results are starting to be met with the following question: How are the NDSU coaches going to keep him on the sideline?
The Bison host Northern Iowa in a key Missouri Valley Football Conference game Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, a matchup of two of the best defensive teams in the league. NDSU leads Division I FCS football in least touchdowns given up this year through five games with five.
Moreover, the Bison are continually finding younger players who are making a difference. Like Kaczor, a 6-foot, 205-pound true sophomore from St. Cloud, Minn.
He’s making a fast run up the Bison statistical chart and is now fifth on the team in tackles with 22, with 12 of those unassisted plays. He came into the season with just nine tackles in his true freshman season, although most of that was spent behind several veteran Bison defenders.
It was a learning experience.
That was nothing, however, to having to learn linebacker in a matter of one week. It started the week of the University of North Dakota game in early September when defensive coordinator David Braun approached Kaczor about the idea of playing linebacker.
“It was fun to me, at least to get a little closer to the ball is fun,” Kaczor said. “At safety, sometimes you get left out of the party.”
He’s found the party. Kaczor had three tackles against the Fighting Hawks and again the following week at the University of Delaware. It was against a passing team like California Davis that he became most noticeable.
He led the team with 11 tackles.
“He’s a smart kid and he’s physical,” said Bison linebacker Aaron Mercadel, “and I think he’s the perfect fit for that. Every week he’s ready to learn new things and learn different things.”
The conversation of a position switch actually started over the summer when Kaczor said linebackers coach Grant Olson joked to him about moving to linebacker.
Was it a joke?
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure,” Kaczor said. “Whatever way I can help the team.”
Kaczor said he met with head coach Matt Entz a few times the week of the UND game. It’s not the first time NDSU has had a player play multiple positions on the fly. Senior starting strong safety James Hendricks has played linebacker in his NDSU career.
Not being big enough was not a concern for Kaczor, who likes to mix it up near the line of scrimmage anyway.
“There was a lot of studying outside of being here,” said Kaczor, standing outside the Bison locker room on Tuesday, Oct. 9. “Actually, it transitions pretty well from safety — the fits and the concepts.”
Sophomore Jackson Hankey is the starting middle linebacker and he’s flanked by Mercadel and junior Jabril Cox. Senior Jaxon Brown is behind both Mercadel and Cox but he missed last week with a foot injury.
The Bison may have found another answer at linebacker. It was briefly discussed when the Bison coaches were recruiting Kaczor out of St. Cloud Tech, but once he got to Fargo that conversation never surfaced. Until lately. Kaczor is the latest Bison player to get the nickname "Swiss Army knife," in reference to being able to do multiple things on the field.
“A big thing about being here is getting the best playmakers on the field, and sometimes that’s switching positions or going to a different side of the ball,” Kaczor said.