Photo By Tim Sanger/NDSU Athletics
If you happened to be standing in front of Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove, California, you would only be a short 30-mile drive from the campus of the University of California, Davis. Simply hop on California 99 North to Sacramento, get on Interstate 80 and head West for 16 miles. Before you know it, you’ll be in Aggie country.
North Dakota State sophomore free safety Dawson Weber was that close to UC Davis his whole life.
“Davis was looked at as a very great academic school and they’re one of the top in the country for academics. On the football side of things, they were always seen as the big FCS program in California,” Weber said of Davis. “They were that go to school in the Big Sky. If you wanted to win, you’d choose there over other schools.”
A native of Elk Grove, Weber set the Pleasant Grove High School record for career receptions, interceptions and defensive touchdowns. Playing both wide receiver and defensive back, he was mainly being recruited as a wide receiver. One of the schools that came calling was the one 30 miles away.
“I was recruited by Davis pretty heavily in high school and I know a couple of guys who are still currently on staff there. I know probably 10 players who are currently playing there,” he said. “I’ve been to a few games here and there, Sacramento State and Davis, the Causeway Classic, was always a big one every year. It’s pretty cool that I finally get to play someone from the West coast.”
Ultimately, Weber originally committed to play for Sacramento State, a school even closer to home. Despite committing to becoming a Hornet, Weber was not totally on board quite yet. It was this uncertainty that led him to take a visit to Fargo following his commitment to Sacramento State. The decision to visit and attend a game inside the Fargodome was invaluable to Weber and his football future.
“Coming here on my visit, I was probably 75 percent sure with Sac State and I still had the edge. That’s why I actually came out here and gave it a shot,” he said. “Coming out here was the best decision of my life because of the winning culture, seeing the championship trophies and all the great players that have come through this program. Hopefully, I can end up following in the same footsteps.”
Weber decommitted from Sacramento State and committed to the Bison the following day. The Hornet coaching staff wanted him to play wide receiver, as did every other school that recruited him. However, Dawson Weber wanted to play on the other side of the football and North Dakota State became the lone school to offer him as a defensive back.
“This was the only school that offered me for defensive back so I was going to play a wideout at every other college. I actually wanted to play DB and that’s also a big reason why I came here because I wanted to play defense,” he said. “I originally came in here as a corner and Josh Hayes came in here as a safety. After seeing our body types and how we move, the first two weeks of summer, coach [Joe] Klanderman brought us in and changed us around. Ever since then, we’ve been rolling.”
The switch has proved beneficial for both Hayes and Weber. Hayes has become one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the FCS and has assumed that role since late 2017. Weber has seen his in-game snaps rise on defense and special teams thanks to his positive development at the free safety position. His long, 6-foot-2 frame will also allow him to make more plays as he sees more action on the field.
Weber saw his first real action at safety after senior James Hendricks went down due to a concussion against North Dakota on September 7. The sophomore came in and played so well that very few even noticed Hendricks was absent. He finished the UND game with five total tackles including a tackle for loss. With Hendricks out last weekend against Delaware, Weber made his first start on the road against the Blue Hens. He made seven tackles, second-most on the team in the 47-22 Bison victory. Through three games, Weber has 14 total tackles, all of them unassisted.
“It has been big for my confidence. Nobody wants to see a teammate go down, but when that happens, that ‘next man up’ mentality kicks in,” he said of coming in for Hendricks. “I just wanted to gain the trust of the players quickly and remain confident in my own ability. Also, the coaches having confidence in me to play out there was big for me too.”
Yet, he is quick to note that the tutelage of Hendricks and former Bison safety Tre Dempsey, is what drove his success right away.
“Learning from James [Hendricks] and Tre Dempsey these past two years have been the best for me personally. Mentally, I was struggling in my first year with the playbook. This spring, me and James kind of hit it on the head and got down to business,” he said. “We knew that it was going to be me and him. Ever since the spring, James and I have been watching a bunch of film and I’ve watched how he goes about his business every day. He watches film, he lives in the Dome and I’ve tried to emulate that as much as I can.”
Alongside a group of seasoned defensive backs, Weber says the “wolfpack’s” chemistry has led them to success so far in 2019. Through three games, North Dakota State is only surrendering 155 pass yards per game to opposing offenses.”It’s huge not only knowing we can trust the guys on the field but trust them off the field. Knowing each person’s personality and finding the best way to bring them up or coach them,” he said. “Not everyone is coached the same and having that strong chemistry in the DB group is huge for us to be successful on the field.”
Heading into a top-ten match-up with UC Davis this week, NDSU’s Code Green defense will be tested. The Aggies offer up one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS in Jake Maier. The senior is a Walter Payton Award favorite and has thrown for 921 yards and six touchdowns through three games in 2019. UC Davis will enter the Fargodome at 2-1, the Bison 3-0. The status of James Hendricks is up in the air with Matt Entz saying the senior would likely return to practice this week. Regardless of if Hendricks plays or not on Saturday, Dawson Weber has surely earned some reps against the Aggies.
“Our big thing this week is focusing on our disguises and trying to get him off his first read early,” Weber said of the secondary’s strategy against Maier. “The defensive line is going to do a great job getting pressure and I know nobody can stop them up front and our linebackers will do a great job as well. Having good looks and disguises is big and when the ball is in the air, we’re going and getting it.”
UC Davis has a few athletes on their roster from Sacramento and Weber says he’ll see some past opponents on the field on Saturday. He says he has been in contact with those adversaries from Davis, but the fun and games end at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“It’s fun. I’ve been talking to a couple of the guys here and there in the spring knowing we had the game coming up. Up until the game we’re friends, but on the field it’s business,” Weber said. “After the game, we’ll get a picture though.”
Dawson Weber grew up around UC Davis football and was even recruited by the school. For whatever the Aggies offered him, he chose North Dakota State in the end. Given his phenomenal start to 2019, he is poised to add his name to the list of great Bison safeties in the near future.