Photo By Bruce Crummy
When James Kaczor committed to play football at North Dakota State University, there were no questions about what he could do on the field.
The question was if there was anything he couldn’t do.
Kaczor played safety, receiver, running back and served as a return specialist at St. Cloud Tech High School. He set the school record for receptions (17) and receiving yards (197) in a single game. By the end of his prep career, Kaczor tallied 126 total tackles (60 of them solo) and four interceptions. Needless to say, his football services were in high demand as he transitioned to college.
While his wealth of talent and versatility on the football field is evident, many were surprised to see Kaczor at a linebacker spot for the Bison two weeks ago against UC Davis. For the most part, Kaczor had never played that position and was undersized for the spot (6-foot-0, 205 pounds is what Kaczor is listed at). However, as he has done for most of his football career, James Kaczor proved he belonged on the field for NDSU.
The sophomore, who is listed at strong safety on the Bison roster piled up 11 total tackles (five solos) and a tackle for loss against the Aggies. Bison head coach Matt Entz said Kaczor’s move to linebacker was simply a means to “find a way to get a playmaker on the football field.”
The switch, while temporary (for now) was a preordained move by the NDSU coaching staff. They originally planned on playing Kaczor there against North Dakota, but the game shook out differently. Because of that, Kaczor had plenty of training at linebacker heading into the UC Davis game.
“I had a lot of preparation, I got a lot of reps at practice. It was something we had put in a couple of weeks ago and we were going to use it against UND, but we didn’t end up using it very much,” Kaczor said. The sophomore had three total tackles against the Fighting Hawks that week. “We pulled it back up for UC Davis because they throw the ball so much and were a spread offense. So I was well prepared but it was exciting to get a lot of reps like that and make a big impact.”
That sort of transition may prove difficult for some players, but not for this smart sophomore. Kaczor said he spent most of his bye week doing schoolwork in Fargo. The St. Cloud native is a mechanical engineering major at North Dakota State.
“Obviously, you’re playing a little closer to the ball which is different for me, but it transitioned well,” he said of the differences between linebacker and safety. “I’m doing a lot of different things, but we’ll use it as needed. I’ll keep working on it, getting reps at practice. I just want to make myself as useful to the team as I can.”
As for his chemistry with the linebackers, Kaczor says the Code Green bond goes beyond position groups. “Code Green is Code Green. I’m good friends with them so we had some chemistry already, but I was working with coach [Grant] Olson a lot,” he said of working with the Bison linebackers. “Before that, I sat down with coach Entz a few times to just get the crash course at linebacker and learn it.”
In a loaded safeties room with James Hendricks, Dawson Weber and Michael Tutsie, the NDSU coaching staff is forced to find alternative ways to get Kaczor game reps. Backing up Tutsie, who has four interceptions so far this season, Kaczor sees these adjustments as blessings in disguise.
“Michael [Tutsie] has had a phenomenal season so far and backing him up has the coaches trying to find ways to get me on the field and it happened to be at linebacker that week,” he said. “Hopefully, we can use it a little bit more throughout the season as well. We’re a super tight-knit group, really good friends. They were sad to see me go last week when I was in the linebackers room so that was kind of funny to leave them.”
Kaczor comes from a family of 10 children. Two of his brothers played at Ivy League schools, leading to the younger Kaczor nearly attending an Ivy League institution. He also had interest from South Dakota State and Minnesota, but choose the Bison for a couple of simple reasons.
“At first, I had a couple of brothers that went to the Ivy League, so I thought I was going to take that path. I took a couple of visits out there, saw Harvard and Princeton, but then I came here for my official visit and it just felt like the right place,” Kaczor said of his recruitment. “You can’t pass up on a culture like this, the championship culture. The guys, the people and coaches felt right to me and it was good to be a little closer to home too. Obviously, I have a pretty big family so being a little closer to home is huge because my family can see the games.”
That decision proved to be life-changing for the sophomore. Though he did not plan on playing much in 2018, the North Dakota State coaches had a different vision for Kaczor’s freshman season. He played in 12 games on special teams and made nine total tackles a year ago. Head coach Chris Klieman opted to not use the four-game redshirt rule with Kaczor, which is rare for a true freshman in college football.
“It seems like it kind of works like that for a lot of guys, earn your role on special teams and make your way to the defense. I came in as a freshman and I wasn’t really expecting to play that much,” Kaczor said of developing a role on special teams in 2018. “As the season went on I just had an advantage being a skill guy and that’s mainly what special teams are and I picked it up pretty quick. Eventually, I found that role on special teams.”
North Dakota State will open its conference slate with Illinois State this weekend in Normal, Illinois. The Redbirds tout a 3-1 record and offer up one of the best running backs in all of FCS in James Robinson. Through four games this season, Robinson has 432 rushing yards and whopping eight rushing touchdowns. Stopping him will be priority number one for Kaczor and Code Green come Saturday.
“We have to keep [James] Robinson under wraps for sure. Tackling is a big thing, he breaks a lot of tackles. Stopping the ground game first is the biggest thing we’re focused on,” Kaczor said.
Tackling has been a point of emphasis and improvement for the Bison so far this season. Matt Entz has continually commented on missed tackles through the first four games. In order to improve that, Kaczor says the Bison have gone back to the basics. “It comes back to the basics of wrapping up. In practice, we got tackling Tuesday, so we’ll have it out there today where we try to get some good looks,” he said. “We just want to be in a good body position and finishing the play by driving your feet.”
It came as a small shock to some fans when James Kaczor trotted onto the field two weeks ago and assumed a linebacker spot. Yet, it did not take long for Bison fans to understand what the NDSU coaches already knew. Kaczor has a rare talent and holds the ability to do almost everything well on the football field.
It should come as no surprise anymore, James Kaczor is a football virtuoso for North Dakota State.