Fargo is an interesting place. Along with neighboring West Fargo and Moorhead, the growing metro area is nearing 250,000 people. Yet there’s still a good ol’ small-town North Dakota feel to it. It’s hard going to the store without seeing someone you know or recognize. People are, for the most part, overly friendly. And of course, rumors spread quickly.
So when the local Division I football team that gets treated like an NFL franchise has something go down, word spreads quickly.
When North Dakota State all-American defensive end Greg Menard tore his ACL in fall camp, the public and online community knew about it before the athletic department announced it or the media could confirm it. Then a couple weeks ago, the same kind of online panic occurred about all-American linebacker Nick DeLuca getting hurt in practice.
This time, the rumor mill spun a little too much. “ACL” and “season-ending” got tossed around a bunch. All was put to rest when DeLuca warmed up in full pads a few days later at Eastern Washington on Sept. 9. He ended up not dressing for the game, but it was a positive sign nonetheless.
On Sept. 11, NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said DeLuca had a “procedure” that day, but wouldn’t say what the injury was or what DeLuca’s timetable was.
Then this Monday, fans and media finally got some clarity. It was a partial meniscus tear, an injury most began to assume.
“It was touch and go the first 3-4 days where we really didn't know a whole lot until they were able to get in there,” Klieman said. “They were able to get in there and fix it and we believe that he can possibly have an opportunity to play. We’re hopeful.”
The question now has turned to not if, but when will DeLuca return?
“The surgery was a success,” Klieman said. “He’s going to begin jogging this week and we’re optimistic that he’s going to play at some point. He’s not going to play this week. But at some point in the future, whether it’s two weeks, four weeks, we’re at least optimistic. Each week, each day, we’ll find out a little bit more what he can do after running.”
The injury comes a year after DeLuca only played in three games because of a shoulder injury that sidelined him. He was a fourth-year senior last season and a projected NFL Draft pick, but was given a medical redshirt to return for a fifth year.
In 2015, DeLuca racked up 135 total tackles in his first season as a full-time starter and quickly became a top linebacker in the FCS.
“It’s tough,” Klieman said. “He’s a strong kid with great friends and great family to lean on. That’s hard. He had it taken away the first time and you're not sure if it’s taken away from you the second time. He’s a resilient kid and that's why I know he’s going to attack this rehab and plans and hopes on playing.”
Now, if I were to guess, I’d say DeLuca would likely be suited up and playing next weekend if it was South Dakota State or Northern Iowa week. He’d for sure be trying to take as many snaps as possible if it were the playoffs.
But I’ll raise a second question: When do the Bison actually need DeLuca to return?
They have their last nonconference opponent Robert Morris this weekend before playing Missouri State and Indiana State to start the MVFC slate. Those are three winnable games if NDSU plays just average football.
It’s the remaining six games that will truly reveal what kind of team NDSU is. Those games are against teams currently ranked in the FCS Coaches Poll at No. 5, 21, 24, 4, 14 and 12. That stretch of games doesn’t start until Oct. 14 at Youngstown State, about a month after DeLuca’s surgery.
The Bison should be fine without him until then, especially with the emergence of backup linebackers Dan Marlette and Levi Jordheim, fourth-year juniors who played like veterans in their first meaningful action against EWU.
DeLuca is the most talented linebacker in the FCS at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, and was moved to outside linebacker this season because of his athleticism. But even without him, the NDSU defense held the high-flying Eagles offense and all-American quarterback Gage Gubrud to 204 total yards, 11 first downs and 17:20 in time of possession in a 40-13 win.
DeLuca is no doubt a difference maker. He was sorely missed in the South Dakota State loss last season when Taryn Christion’s running ability baffled the Bison. In the semifinal loss to James Madison, Bryan Schor’s pass across his body to the middle of the field that gained more than 50 yards after the catch and Khalid Abdullah’s long run to set up the game-clinching touchdown pass were the kind of big plays DeLuca prevents.
His presence is key if NDSU wants to get back its national championship. But his presence isn’t needed for another month.