Joe Haeg is an imposing guy. He measures in at 6'6" at 310 pounds and features a killer beard. Haeg is just the latest in a long list of key contributors to the Bison program who walked on. He's also an early-round NFL prospect and the leader of the North Dakota State offensive line.
Haeg, like many great Bison, started his college career out in humble fashion. He walked on at North Dakota State and redshirted during the 2011 season. As NDSU fans know, that was the first year the Thundering Herd captured the FCS National Championship.
The 2015 Bison seniors that redshirted were the first group of redshirt freshmen to go to Frisco and watch NDSU win a national championship from the stands before they competed on the field. You can see Joe at the 3:41 mark of the video below (to the immediate left of a very excited Carson Wentz).
That 2011 team had the best offensive tackle tandem in Bison history. Left Tackle Billy Turner is currently starting for the Miami Dolphins. Right tackle Paul Cornick played professionally for the Denver Broncos and spent time with the Jets and Bears as well. Cornick graduated in 2011 and left big shoes to fill. Haeg surprised everyone and went from a skinny freshman walk-on to NDSU's starting right tackle in one offseason. "The main thing is, I wasn't worried about being the next Paul Cornick. I was just worried about being the best Joe Haeg that I could be. All the guys were able to rally around me" said Haeg.
Haeg played two solid seasons at right tackle before taking over for Billy Turner on the left side. During his junior season in 2014, Haeg received national recognition and began to catch the eye of professional scouts. "They played with such a physical mentatility. Especially Billy, he's all about being as violent as he can be. That's something that going from last year to this year I've been trying to work on." said Haeg. He replaced Turner brilliantly.
The list of 2014 accolades for Haeg is quite long. He was awareded First Team All America from the AFCA, AP, Sports Network and FCS Athletic directors. Haeg was all-MVFC first team and was awarded the College Sporting News Offensive Lineman of the Year award. Quite simply, for the fourth consecutive season, the Bison had an All American level left tackle.
2015 has been just as, if not more impressive than Haeg's junior campaign. Haeg finished 13th in FCS Offensive Player of the Year voting. Not offensive lineman of the year, player of the year. Haeg has played so well this season that he has been recognized for an award that is typically skewed toward the skill positions. "I appreciate the acknowledgement, I appreciate the recognition, the main thing that it comes down to is our record on Saturdays" said Haeg.
Bison Freshman QB Easton Stick was not so modest: "It's awesome that an offensive lineman gets recognition like that. I think he's one of the best players in the country. He deserves all of that recognition and probably more. He's a big leader for us as an offense and as a team."
The "Rams" (NDSU's offensive line) have been effective all season, but have been truly dominant since the loss to South Dakota. Refocusing after the loss to the Coyotes and the loss of senior QB Carson Wentz has paid off in a big way. North Dakota State finished with the top rushing offense in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and rushed for 313.4 yards a game over the last five games.
Haeg and the Bison offensive line was also excellent in pass protection all season long. The Rams allowed Stick and Wentz to be sacked just 11 times over the course of the season. Haeg, as the blind-side protection, is the most important pass blocker on the team. With Haeg entering a pass-happy NFL next season those skills will be of utmost importance.
Speaking of Haeg's NFL stock, it is currently trending upwards. CBS Sports ranks him as their 90th overall player and the ninth ranked offensive tackle. The 9th offensive tackle taken in the 2015 draft (Jamon Brown), was taken by the Rams at the top of the 3rd round. DRAFTTEK ranks Haeg 12th. Unlike the broader Turner (a guard in Miami), Haeg projects to stay at tackle at the next level.
The tradition of the Rams at North Dakota State is a very impressive one. There aren't many programs, FCS or not, that send three offensive linemen into the NFL in five years. Haeg is a fantastic player, and one that Bison fans won't soon forget. NDSU must continue the tradition of outstanding offensive lines if they're going to continue running the ball and playing "Bison Football".
Haeg doesn't think that's going to be a problem: "There's a lot of guys, there are guys that aren't starting for us now that you can tell have that ability (to be a star). Our offensive line as a whole, we develop so much in the offseason and during the season with Coach Riley that anyone can. If you would have looked at me when I got here, you'd have thought there was no way one day I was going to play in the NFL."
You'd have been wrong.