FARGO — When asked to describe his running style, North Dakota State redshirt freshman Jalen Bussey compared himself to a current NFL player who has a lighting bolt painted on the side of his helmet.
The 5-foot-5, 161-pound Bussey likens his game to a Los Angeles Chargers running back who is 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds.
“I like to compare myself to like an Austin Ekeler, an elusive, quick back being able to make people miss in space and a bolt of speed,” said Bussey, from Brandon, Fla.
Bussey provided a jolt to the NDSU running game last weekend, rushing for 143 yards on 13 attempts, good for 11.0 yards per attempt. He helped fuel a Bison running game that rushed for more than 400 yards in an NCAA Division I FCS playoff win against Eastern Washington.
“He’s a different tempo,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said. “Different tempo, different speed coming through the hole, but also the ability to make people miss.”
NDSU (7-2) could need Bussey’s tempo again this weekend, playing at No. 2-seeded Sam Houston (7-0) at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 2, in the FCS quarterfinals. The Bison are playing in the national quarterfinals for an 11th consecutive season. They are playing their first road playoff game since the 2010 season.
Bussey said his success starts with the players lined up in front of him.
“The plays don’t start if they don’t get people moved off the line of scrimmage,” Bussey said of the Bison offensive line. “It all starts with them.”
Bussey has played limited snaps this spring due to an ankle injury. Prior to last Saturday, he had only one carry since March 13, and that came at Northern Iowa on April 10. The 13 carries against Eastern Washington were a season high for Bussey, who has rushed for 390 yards and three touchdowns on 40 attempts this spring. That’s good for 9.8 yards per carry.
“It was awesome to have him back,” said Bison junior defensive end Logan McCormick. “He’s an electric player, fun to watch. Very fast, very shifty. I know he would give me and our defense a lot of problems if we ever had to scout and game plan against him. I’m excited for his growth and his leadership capability.”
The Bison rushed for 422 yards on 57 attempts against Eastern Washington last Saturday. They next face a stingy Sam Houston defense that is limiting opponents to less that 60 rushing yards per game. NDSU is averaging 227.1 rushing yards per contest.
“They like to flow to the ball pretty quickly,” Bussey said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us this week, but we know if we do what we can do and we do, everything right at 100 miles per hour, we’ll run the ball like we did last week and we’ll be efficient.”
Bussey thought he was close to returning to game action against South Dakota State on April 17 for the final game of the regular season. Instead, he waited an extra week and made an impact against Eastern Washington in the opening round of the FCS playoffs.
“Dealing with an injury is kind of frustrating, especially a lingering ankle injury,” Bussey said. “It wasn’t something that I wanted to be out as long as I was with, but just trusting the process and everything. It was a relief to get back on the field and get back to doing what I’m used to doing.”
Entz said Bussey brings a slashing running style to the backfield that complements the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Hunter Luepke, who is a power back. True freshman Dominic Gonnella, 5-11, 205, is a blend of speed and power, while sophomore Kobe Johnson, 5-9, 180, is another speed back. Johnson hasn’t played since March 20 due to a knee injury.
“We all complement each other,” Bussey said. “My speed with Dom’s power, Kobe’s kind of juking quickness with Hunter’s increased power. We all build off each other. We’re a very close group.”
Bussey is one of the many redshirt or true freshmen who have had to contribute this spring. He praised the upperclassmen for helping out the younger players on the team.
“It’s good to see that the future of our program is in good hands,” Bussey said. “All credit to our old guys for preparing us for these moments, teaching us what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do it. … I’m starting to get to the point where I’m not going to be young anymore, but I’m going to try to hold on to it as long as I can.”