Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Greg Menard and the Bison defense set out last season to build a legacy of their own. They were tired of hearing about the loss of defensive stars like Travis Beck, Carlton Littlejohn, Colton Heagle and Christian Dudzik and wanted the 2015 defense to continue the stingy and tenacious tradition at NDSU. The journey to prove the naysayers wrong didn’t start well for the seven new starters, including Menard.
Then a sophomore, Menard went through the first three games of the season without a sack and only registered one hit on the quarterback. It was a slow start for the young defensive end who was selected with the task of replacing one of NDSU’s greatest and San Diego Chargers draft pick Kyle Emanuel.
After a shocking last-second loss to Montana to begin the season and two offensive blitzkriegs by a Carson Wentz-led offense, the Bison went down to Brookings, S.D., in their fourth game for a highly-anticipated Missouri Valley Football Conference opener with South Dakota State. NDSU made sure they brought their defense with them.
The “Code Green” siren blared throughout Coughlin-Alumni Stadium as the Bison defense held SDSU to negative four rushing yards and seven points. Menard registered two sacks in three plays in the fourth quarter as he walked off the field with a new career-high. It was the coming out party fans and coaches alike had been waiting for out of No. 96.
“I think I was pressing too hard in the first three games to try and get a sack,” the Lakeville, Minn. native said. “I came back against SDSU and just let the game come to me and just took it naturally as the game came.”
Menard finished last season with a team-high 10 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries. He was also picked as a first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference player and was selected as a third-team All-America by STATS. After a sputtering start, the sophomore finished the 2015 season strong, revitalizing hope for what was to come this year.
“People forget, Greg is a 4.0 engineering student,” defensive ends coach Jamar Cain said after the third practice of fall camp. “That kid is unbelievably smart. Once the game slows down, he picks things up quick. He doesn’t take notes. He just has it. And Kyle was a 3.5, just another smart kid. Once the game slowed down for him, it was all uphill from there.”
Standing at six-foot-two and weighing 239 pounds with his brown dreadlocks starting to fall down in front of his face, Menard isn’t the biggest defensive end in the Missouri Valley or on the team for that matter. But looking at the junior’s build, you would never guess his first love was soccer.
Menard’s father, Robert, is from Haiti and got his son into the World’s Game at a young age. Being of Haitian descent, Menard has always been partial to France due to the country’s rule over Haiti for nearly two centuries. Menard even took French classes in high school so he could speak the language his father grew up around.
On the pitch, Menard played everywhere, which isn’t a surprise when you see his athleticism while crashing in on opposing quarterbacks. First, Menard tried playing defense, but due to too many yellow cards for aggressive play, they moved him to striker, a position that’s known for leading the offensive charge.
“I was actually alright at it,” Menard said reliving his glory days on the pitch. “It was a speed thing and I would never get pushed off the ball. (I had) very little skill involved.”
Menard gave up soccer before 10th grade to focus on football. It also didn’t help that the Minnesota high school season was in the fall, the same time as football.
“It’s a shame,” Menard said. “I’d much rather play soccer than do something like track and field.”
He admits he was much better at football growing up, which is what drew him away from soccer. He also referenced the rush he gets when you’re on the field and you make a good hit, something he was obviously not allowed to do without getting on the referee’s bad side in soccer.
Menard’s interest in the game is alive and well. His favorite team is Chelsea of the English Premier League and he loves watching international soccer in his free time. He’s also constantly playing FIFA, the soccer video game, with teammates.
“There are enough guys (on the team) playing FIFA but I scare them away and they never want to play again after they play me,” Menard said, sticking out his chest. “Tre (Dempsey) has gotten a little better, but he’s still not on my level yet.”
“Everybody needs their outlet,” said Cain about Menard’s infatuation with soccer. The third-year defensive ends coach trust what Menard is doing with his free time as long as it leads to more and more production on the field.
“Greg is getting there,” Cain said along with expecting Menard to reach a total of 16 sacks this season. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he won defensive player of the year. He has those attributes, and the good thing about him is he learned. He sat back and listened to Kyle, and learned and he didn’t act like he knew everything. He took everything to heart and that’s why you see his numbers where they’re at right now.”
Before the season, Menard was mentioned on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list along with teammate Nick DeLuca. The bar has been set high by coaches and the media for Menard, who still has a legacy he’s trying to cement in Bison football lore.