FARGO — Hours after North Dakota State won the NCAA Division I FCS national championship in January, senior tight end Ben Ellefson was already starting to chase his NFL dreams.
Instead of traveling back to Fargo with the team, Ellefson headed to Florida for the East-West Shrine Bowl.
"It was within four hours, I had to get on a flight to Tampa," said Ellefson, from Hawley, Minn. "We really didn't get to celebrate the championship."
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Ellefson spent the week in St. Petersburg to practice for the college all-star game on Jan. 18 at Tropicana Field. Bison defensive end Derrek Tuszka also played in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Ellefson and Tuszka have been in the Denver area since the Shrine Bowl, training at Landow Performance. Ellefson is preparing for NDSU's pro day, which is slated for the end of March. The NFL Draft is scheduled for April 23-25 in Las Vegas.
"It's always been a dream of mine," Ellefson said of the NFL. "Being this close is pretty cool."
The 6-foot-5, 246-pound Tuszka received an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, which starts Sunday, Feb. 23, in Indianapolis. Ellefson and Tuszka have roomed together in Colorado while training. Ellefson said the two were also roommates for five years at NDSU.
"Derrek is going to go to the Combine, he's going to do really well, he's going to test really well," Ellefson said. "Hopefully, that will draw eyes and in a way, benefit the rest of us that will be at the (NDSU) pro day because of his numbers and the amount of scouts that are going to be watching him."
Ellefson said while it would have been "special" to receive a Combine invite, he's not dwelling on not being part of the annual scouting event.
"I'm going to continue training and focus on the things that I can, and then maximizing the opportunity I do have on pro day," Ellefson said.
Dane Brugler, an NFL Draft analyst for The Athletic sports website, said Ellefson was one of the highest rated tight ends to not receive a Combine invitation. More than 300 players received invites.
A couple weeks ago, Brugler wrote for The Athletic that Ellefson was one of the snubs at tight end. Brugler said Ellefson's "positive performance" at the Shrine Bowl means more now since Ellefson isn't at the Combine.
Brugler estimates 30 to 35 non-Combine prospects will get drafted.
"He could be part of that mix if he finishes strong at the pro day," Brugler said.
"I think (Ellefson) going to the Shrine game is the best thing that he could do," said NDSU offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl. "He needs to perform in pads. He's not going to be a guy who's going to wow you in a combine setting because you can't see the kid's desire to be physical and tough and willingness to block."
Ellefson said training to run a 40-yard dash and the agility drills for pro day is different than the training he did while with the Bison.
"We're training for a track meet, the 40 and the short shuttle and things like that, so it's a little bit different," Ellefson said.
After pro day, Ellefson plans to remain in Fargo to continue training in the weeks leading up to the draft.
Matt Striegel of Capital Sports Advisors is Ellefson's agent. Ellefson said he's leaned on former Bison teammates, quarterback Easton Stick and wide receiver Darrius Shepherd for advice. The Los Angeles Chargers drafted Stick in the fifth round last season. Shepherd went undrafted, but earned a spot with the Green Bay Packers. Ellefson said he has also received advice from former Bison linebacker Nick DeLuca.
"They've been really good resources for me in that process," Ellefson said.
Roehl said Ellefson has the right mindset to make a run at an NFL career. Ellefson had 35 catches for 463 yards and 16 touchdowns while playing in 59 games during his Bison career. His career TD catch total is the program record for a tight end at NDSU.
"He's going to succeed because he won't let himself fail," Roehl said. "He's going to give everyone his best shot. He's going to do whatever anyone asks him to do. ... He's a reliable football player."
To go along with the speed and strength training, Ellefson said he's also doing position-specific work a couple days a week. Former NFL tight ends Joel Dreesen and Bo Scaife have helped coach Ellefson.
"I didn't really know what to expect going into it," Ellefson said. "It's something completely different from a team thing. It's a lot more individualized. I run things a little bit different, my body type is a little bit different than the guy next me."
Ellefson said the East-West Shrine Game experience was one of the highlights of his draft preparation, getting the chance to compete against NFL prospects from Power Five conferences.
"You can't back down from those things and I don't think I did and it's a pretty cool opportunity to be with some of the best in the business," Ellefson said. "That was definitely a highlight so far."
During Shrine Bowl practice, Ellefson worked at both tight end and fullback.
"Being as versatile as you can is the biggest thing moving forward," Ellefson said. "Each team is looking at me maybe a little bit differently. The more you can maximize the things you can do, including special teams as well, is critical and very important in this process."
Ellefson said point-of-attack blocking is one of his strong suits. He played for three consecutive national title teams in his final three seasons at NDSU. The Bison had a 45-1 record over those three seasons.
"I think even more than the success is the intangible things, the accountability, being on time, the discipline and the things we learn in the weight room with (strength) coach (Jim) Kramer," Ellefson said. "It's the discipline and the grind that has kind of stuck with me."