FARGO — North Dakota State junior James Kaczor recently responded to an observation that his laid-back demeanor didn’t seem to match the archetype of a traditional linebacker.
Kaczor countered with a question.
“What is a prototypical linebacker supposed to be like?” he asked.
Kaczor is in his first season as a full-time linebacker for the Bison after making the transition from strong safety.
“It doesn’t appear that I have a mean bone in my body and sometimes it can be a challenge to play this aggressive sport, but as far as being a prototypical linebacker, I’m not,” Kaczor said. “I think that’s what’s special about me.”
Kaczor has been an important part of the Bison defense, leading the team in tackles through six games this season, including the game NDSU played last October against Central Arkansas. The Bison have missed two consecutive Missouri Valley Football Conference games, one canceled and one postponed, due to COVID-19 protocols. NDSU (5-1, 4-1 MVFC) is in a four-way tie for first in the conference and is next scheduled to play at Northern Iowa on Saturday, April 10.
“We’re grateful for every opportunity we get to practice, every opportunity that we get to play games,” Kaczor said. “Nothing is guaranteed, especially during COVID.”
The 6-foot, 211-pound Kaczor started the transition to linebacker during the 2019 season, which the Bison capped with a third consecutive Division I FCS national championship. He started at outside linebacker in the national title game against James Madison. Kaczor has played in 32 games during his Bison career.
“He plays extremely fast, he’s a very smart football player, has really transitioned very well into the (linebacker) position,” said Bison head coach Matt Entz. “He’s done a great job of being a leader. … I always expect big things out of James. He is a very humble, hungry player at the same time.”
Bison senior cornerback Josh Hayes, who plans to return for the 2021 fall season, describes Kaczor as easy to talk to and one of the most “laid-back guys” he’s ever met.
“On the field, he is a competitive guy, tenacious, he gets after the ball and you can see that he loves the game every Saturday,” Hayes added.
Kaczor had a team-high seven tackles in NDSU’s 34-13 home victory against the University of North Dakota on March 20. He has 48 total tackles this season and has also scored two 2-point conversions.
“He’s a football player and a good one at that,” Hayes said. “I think he would excel at any position you would put him at, even if you tried to throw him at quarterback, I think he would figure it out. … He’s a smart guy. He brings a lot of versatility to that (linebacker) room. He’s fast around the edge. He’s a strong guy, hits his fits hard so I think he provides a nice presence in the linebacker core.”
Kaczor likes his current role, which includes being a contributor on special teams.
“I like what I’m doing right now, being all over the field," Kaczor said. “Obviously, I’m not the prototypical linebacker. If I had a few more inches and a few more (pounds) on me, I’d probably be a little better off. The position I am in right now is great for me.”
Entz said Kaczor’s leadership has been invaluable this spring. During the UND game, veteran middle linebacker Jackson Hankey left the game with an undisclosed injury. That led to extended playing time for sophomore linebacker Luke Weerts against the Fighting Hawks.
“He has done a really nice job of helping Luke Weerts, when Luke was out there, with the communication piece,” Entz said.
The Bison won three consecutive games before COVID-19 sidetracked their schedule. During those past three victories, NDSU is allowing 8.7 points per game. Those stingy performances came after the Bison gave up 38 points in a 24-point loss at Southern Illinois. Kaczor said the Bison defense has matured since that SIU loss.
“The more we play together, the more cohesive that we’re becoming and the more fun we’re having,” Kaczor said.
Kaczor said the nontraditional spring season has been worthwhile, even with the COVID disruptions and disappointments. For example, the Bison road game on March 27 at the University of South Dakota was canceled hours before kickoff due to a positive test in the NDSU travel party.
“We need to be grateful for the opportunities that we do have and recognize that each day, each practice, each game is a blessing,” Kaczor said. “We need to take a step back and just recognize how blessed we really are to play a spring season.”