NDSU Athletics

North Dakota State is Starting 3 Different Linebackers than Started the 2014 Season.

NDSU started Carlton Littlejohn, Travis Beck and Esley Thornton at linebacker for most of last season. All three graduated. Junior MJ Stumpf has stepped up in a big way to help lead a new LB crew.

The tradition of linebackers at North Dakota State is long and impressive.  Guys like Steve Nelson, Charlie Stock, Sean Fredericks and Andrew LeClair are legends of the Division II era.  That tradition continued as NDSU made the move to Division I.  Travis Beck, Carlton Littejohn, Grant Olson, Preston Evans, Esley Thornton and Mike Maresh have been exceptional contributors to the program.  Ramon Humber and Joe Mays have had long NFL careers.  The linebackers have been an important and effective part of North Dakota State's success.

For the first time in longer than I can remember, though, NDSU had to replace all three starters at linebacker.  Sure, Nick DeLuca got very meaningful late season snaps after Travis Beck's career ended with an Achilles tear, but Carlton Littlejohn was the day 1 starter at MLB.  Littlejohn, Esley Thorton and Beck started a ton of games for the Thundering Herd, and all three graduated.  All three had to be replaced.

One of the three positions had an easy answer. Nick DeLuca is the best linebacking prospect North Dakota State has brought in since the aforementioned Mays.  Linebackers that move like DeLuca and are 6'3" and 244 pounds generally play Power 5 football, not just FBS football.  There was absolutely no question who NDSU's man in the middle is going to be for the rest of this season and next.

The other two positions were the questions.  The two players with seniority, juniors Pierre Gee-Tucker (another very sought after recruit) and MJ Stumpf won the outside jobs.  The coaching staff made it clear that the two former special teams standouts were in open competition with underclassmen like Dan Marlette, Matt Plank and Levi Jordheim but Gee-Tucker and Stumpf staked their claim early and have solidified their positions.

The most impressive new linebacker so far as been Stumpf.   He has stepped into the Travis Beck role in the defense.  Stupmf almost never comes off the field, with Pierre Gee-Tucker subbing out in nickel packages.  The junior from Harvey, ND is third on the team in tackles and leads the linebackers in pass breakups and fumble recoveries.  Because of how excellent Stumpf has been and how seamless he has made his transition into Travis Beck's spot in the defense the Bison have been dominant against the pass in the last four games.  

North Dakota State is only giving up 152.5 passing yards per game over the last four contests.  If you take away the two longest plays against them (a 67 yard TD by UNI and a 68 yard pass by Weber State) and the average would be only 118 yards passing per game.  Obviously those plays happened, but there have been 102 passing attempts against the Bison over the past four games.  100 of them have been defended very well. 

Having players like Stumpf and Beck allows the Bison to keep great tacklers on the field.  Both players cover like defensive backs and tackle like LBs.  When opposing offenses use three receiver sets, The Bison can stay with three linebackers.  When teams spread the Bison out with four wideouts, the Bison can keep Stumpf on the field and go nickel.  The ability to stay out of dime (six defensive backs) and keep good tacklers on the field has been a staple of the Code Green Cover 2 defense for years.

MJ Stumpf has stepped in and become exactly what the Bison needed out of his position.  A capable blitzer, willing tackler and excellent cover man, Stumpf is giving Coach Kileman and defensive coordinator Matt Entz a dependable and versatile player on which to cout on.  The Travis Beck comparisons (like the one I continued to make throughout this article) are inevitable.  Both players cover well, play weakside linebacker and are from small towns in North Dakota.  Travis Beck is a name Bison fans will never forget.  If Stumpf keeps playing like he has they won't forget his either. 

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