The 'next man up' mantra encapsulates what college football is all about. Injuries happen. Teams have no time to feel sorry for themselves and need to move on quickly. It’s become the go-to phrase for every coach when talking about injuries. And unfortunately for North Dakota State, it’s something they’ve gotten used to saying every year.
Say what you want about the Bison’s run of five FCS championships from 2011-2015. As dominant as it was, NDSU has had to overcome at least one significant injury to a key player every year since 2012.
2017 will be the same. Days after being named to the Buck Buchanan Award watch list for best defensive player in the FCS, senior all-American defensive end Greg Menard tore his ACL in practice during a routine third-down situational drill. He’s done for the year, and has the option to return next season if he so chooses after playing as a true freshman in 2014.
NFLDraftScout.com last listed Menard (6-foot-2, 241-pounds) as the No. 43 outside linebacker prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft. In three seasons, he accounted for 125 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 24 sacks.
It’s a huge blow to a defensive unit labeled as a favorite to be the best in the FCS. A reason for that is depth and talent across the board, especially on the defensive line. And because of this, the Bison’s production won't drop off a cliff.
“We're trying to do it by committee,” NDSU defensive coordinator Matt Entz told media on Monday. “That’s what we’ve done over the course of my time here now in three years. We’ve had a serious, drastic injury every year and we seem to keep going on about our business. What allows us to do that is how we approach each day. We try to coach our kids at everything. We tell them every day to practice like a pro.”
The Bison defense has been snakebitten in recent years with these key injuries. In 2012, defensive lineman Leevon Perry and safety Colten Heagle went down with knee injuries. The following year the heart and soul of the defense — linebacker Grant Olson — tore his ACL, but was able to play some snaps in the championship game.
Four-year starter at linebacker Travis Beck was sidelined during the 2014 playoff run due to an Achilles injury. Nick DeLuca stepped into a starting role and soon became one of the top linebackers in the FCS.
In 2016, DeLuca had to surrender his season with a shoulder injury. Later on, defensive tackle Nate Tanguay was lost due to a torn ACL.
The NDSU offense experienced the same thing in 2015 with Carson Wentz’s wrist injury — one that sidelined him for eight games before he returned in time for the national championship game.
That’s a long list of season-ending injuries to all-conference and all-American caliber players. But no one outside Fargo felt bad for the Bison then, and no one outside Fargo will feel bad for them now. Injuries are a part of the game and each team needs that 'next man up' mentality.
It’s certainly something NDSU is used to.
“We’re going to have to rally the troops a little bit,” Entz said. “We’ve already talked defensively to our group that everyone, including the coaches, is going to have to pick up their game a little bit. From the defensive tackles to our safeties to our corners. We're not going to rely on one guy to fill Greg’s shoes. But we're going to rely on everyone to step up.”