Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
A new leader has emerged on the Bison defense. Even if fans and teammates saw it coming from a mile away, Nick DeLuca has reassured the pundits he’s the next man in the middle of the destruction caused by the Bison defense.
“I’m not a big media guy. It’s not my favorite thing to do,” the 6-foot-3-inch junior middle linebacker for NDSU said while making his rounds at football Media Day in August.
He’s a bit camera shy, too, as he forces a smile for a photographer in the corner of the room. He even laughs, embarrassed when asked to flex his muscles for the camera. He has all the mannerisms off the field of a reserve linebacker, hoping to get through the media meet-and-greet without somebody sticking a microphone in his face.
But it’s too late for Nick DeLuca. He already made a loud announcement to Bison Nation and his team that he’s here to stay in Fargo after starting down the stretch during FCS playoffs last season. You’re lucky if you get a couple sentences out of the Omaha, Neb., native. Although, on the football field, his play is as loud and clear as Richard Sherman’s interviews, and DeLuca’s play screams: I’m the next great Bison middle linebacker.
Now, those aren’t his words, yet. The Bison middle linebacker position has been glamorized thanks to DeLuca’s predecessors. Joe Mays, Ramon Humber, Preston Evans, Grant Olson and Carlton Littlejohn have all played the position for the Bison over the past 10 seasons. Talk about being in the right neighborhood.
Defensive coordinator Matt Entz said DeLuca’s aware of the shoes he’s filling.
“I think Nick is perpetually trying to chase perfection a little bit because he understands the history and tradition that’s associated with the Bison middle linebacker,” Entz said. “He’s doing a good job. I keep telling him they’re his own shoes so make your own shoes. Wear your own shoes out there, you don’t have to fill in anybody’s shoes, and he is.”
DeLuca is slowly chipping away at his own bust among the linebacking Mount Rushmore at NDSU. He registered a career-high of 20 tackles against Southern Illinois on Halloween night. It was the most tackles in a single game from a Bison since 2012, when Olson had 29 against Wofford. DeLuca leads the team in tackles this year with 96, 39 of them solo bring-downs.
“I think, athletically, we all knew he was unbelievably gifted,” Entz said. “You talk about a guy that was a 245-pound guy who is a 6’3’’ individual that may have some of the best hands on the team, pound for pound maybe the fastest guy on the team, great tackler.”
DeLuca showed his ball-hawking skills in his first start last year at South Dakota. He intercepted Kevin Earl and recorded 12 tackles. It was quite the debut for the then-sophomore who would eventually be thrust into the starting lineup after Travis Beck tore his Achilles.
He’s the rare combination of speed and strength. It’s what makes him so valuable as a Cover 2 middle linebacker who needs to sink back through the middle of the field in pass coverage. His quickness is similar to Littlejohn’s, but he’s as physical as Olson.
“Coach Kramer has done an unbelievable job with him in the weight room,” Entz said. “The number one thing when you have a big player like that is that you’re worried he’s going to get stiff or get too big. … As long as he can maintain what he’s doing and continue to move from point A to point B, I like how he’s playing.”
This season also introduced two new outside linebackers, MJ Stumpf and Pierre Gee-Tucker, starting next to DeLuca.
Entz said that although the three are individuals and their growth reflects that, the comfortability with each other is getting better and better with each passing week. The numbers support Entz’s claim as the Bison are second in the conference in yards allowed, only yielding 291 yards per game.
“I think our guys rally around him. They know 49 is playing fast, there’s a comfort level out there so we have to keep him playing the way he can.”
As quiet as DeLuca is when the camera is on, his teammates say he turns it up the volume knob on the field.
Entz said he’s not your prototypical vocal leader because he does most of his leading with his play. But senior defensive tackle Brian Schaetz likes what he has seen from the man behind him.
“He’s very vocal in situations,” Schaetz said. “He came into a role that was hard. It’s hard to play linebacker, I mean, they’re telling the defense what to do. We’re trained bears, pretty much. If they screw up, we all screw-up.”
DeLuca has screwed up very little this season. The Bison defense is as stout as ever after introducing many new numbers and faces to Bison Nation this year.
Maybe one day DeLuca will flex for the camera. For now, he doesn’t mind keeping his head down and letting all of his big hits on unsuspecting ball carriers do the talking.