FARGO — In a way, Derrek Tuszka has always had to prove that coming from a smaller school or town is no obstacle. He’ll get that chance again later this month when the former North Dakota State defensive end gets on the biggest training stage there is in the NFL Combine.
Tuszka got an invitation to the event in Indianapolis that showcases the best NFL prospects from across the country, most from bigger Division I programs.
“Even though NDSU has proven to hold its own over the years, I’m still excited to show what my numbers are going to be like and have that exposure,” Tuszka said. “Just excited for the opportunity to compare me to the other guys from bigger schools.”
The Combine consists of a variety of drills from 40-yard dash, bench press, shuttle runs, long jump and vertical jump. Getting in front of all the NFL scouts, coaches and front office personnel is not that much different in scope than when he was a true freshman at NDSU from small-town Warner, S.D. He had to quickly adjust from high school 9-man football to a Division I college program.
“I’m taking this as another challenge,” he said. “I’m used to it by now.”
Tuszka redshirted in 2015. As a redshirt freshman the following year, he appeared in eight games and finished the season with four tackles. He moved into a starting role as a sophomore and the ascension to becoming one of the best defensive ends in the country went from there.
Tuszka will be the ninth Bison player in the past nine years to participate in the Combine. Quarterback Easton Stick parlayed his performance last year into a fifth round draft pick of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Tuszka said he talked with Stick a couple of days ago to get his thoughts on the Combine “so nothing catches me by surprise.”
Before that, Combine participants from NDSU since the first FCS title in 2011 were linebacker Nick DeLuca in 2018, quarterback Carson Wentz and offensive lineman Joe Haeg in 2016, running back John Crockett and defensive end/outside linebacker Kyle Emanuel in 2015, offensive lineman Billy Turner in 2014 and offensive lineman Paul Cornick in 2012. Defensive back Marcus Williams was invited to the 2014 Combine, but did not participate due to injury.
All at least made an NFL roster with Wentz, Turner and Haeg still in the league.
“You go back and think about all the greats that got invited to it,” Tuszka said. “It’s definitely a very special opportunity and I’m blessed to have that opportunity ahead of me.”
Tuszka is also scheduled to participate in NDSU’s Pro Day at the end of March along with tight end Ben Ellefson, cornerback Marquise Bridges, offensive lineman Zack Johnson, safety James Hendricks, running backs Ty Brooks and Dimitri Williams, receiver Jimmy Kepouros and defensive lineman Cole Karcz.
The 6-foot-5 Tuszka led the Bison with 19 tackles for lost yardage and 13.5 quarterback sacks. He had seven quarterback hurries and five pass breakups.
He was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year and finished fifth in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award that goes to the best defensive player in the FCS.
He was listed at 246 pounds this year, but is currently around 250, which is what he expects to be at the Combine. He and Ellefson are currently working out with Landow Performance in Centennial, Colo., just outside of Denver.
“This is a different kind of training,” Tuszka said. “They’re essentially treating it like a track meet. They don’t want to overtrain us; they want us at a peak for the Combine and Pro Day so it’s very calculated out. There are specific tapering periods in order to have our bodies at a peak.”
The Bison players essentially have yet to have a break. The FCS title game was Jan. 11 in Frisco with Tuszka and Ellefson flying out almost immediately to the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“They realize Ben and I are coming off a long season,” Tuszka said. “Through this process there is a bunch of recovery and we’re feeling better every day.”