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McFeely: Waege back on Bison defensive line for a bonus year

Following knee injury last season, defensive end returns for sixth season thanks to COVID rules

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North Dakota State defensive end Spencer Waege chats with head coach Matt Entz during the opening day of practice at Dacotah Field on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — It's likely Spencer Waege would not be getting ready for another college football season if Sept. 18, 2021, didn't happen. That's when the North Dakota State defensive end injured his right knee in a game at Towson.

Rushing the quarterback late in the third quarter with the Bison leading 28-0 during an eventual 35-7 victory, Waege tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee. His season and, temporarily, his hope of making a run at the NFL were finished.

"I didn't want to believe it right away, I guess. Right when it happened, like I felt my knee pop and buckle and everything and kind of figured something pretty bad had happened," Waege said Friday after the Bison's second practice of fall camp. "I was hoping for the best and then I found out the Monday after that Towson game that I ended up tearing ACL and meniscus and was going to need surgery and it was the end of my season. So it was kind of a roller coaster of emotions there for a few days."

The 6-foot-5, 282-pound senior from South Shore, S.D., near Watertown, had hoped last season, his fifth at NDSU, was going to be his last. He'd risen from a highly touted prospect who redshirted in 2017 into a second-team All-American following the Football Championship Subdivision's spring season in 2021, when he had a team-high 8 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in 10 games.

In a perfect world Waege would've had a big senior season and then gotten a chance with an NFL team.

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North Dakota State defensive end Spencer Waege takes a break during the opening day of practice at Dacotah Field on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

"Yeah, it was in the mind. It had a lot to do with how the season played out for me. So ultimately, I wasn't gonna really make that decision until probably later in the playoffs, when I kind of kind of knew where I was gonna be sitting,"Waege said. "But I mean, I'm happy with being able to come back, too."

The Bison are happy to have him, bittersweet as it might be. With Missouri Valley Football Conference defensive player of the year runner-up Brayden Thomas graduating — and getting his NFL shot as an undrafted free agent — NDSU is in need of an elite edge pass rusher.

Tony Pierce got a couple of starts opposite Thomas in Waege's absence, and played well in the Bison's defensive line rotation, but now-departed Logan McCormick started the final 10 games. Loshiaka Roques and Jake Kava were also in the rotation and made key plays in the playoffs as the Bison won another national championship.

The Bison need Waege to return to form, plus. Outsiders are expecting big things. Despite missing most of last season, he was chosen as a second-teamer on the preseason all-MVFC team.

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North Dakota State defensive end Spencer Waege readies for drills during the opening day of practice at Dacotah Field on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

He's so far eased into practice. Waege was medically cleared to return on Monday and is spending the early portion of fall camp on a repetition count, something head coach Matt Entz compares to a pitch count in baseball.

"They don't want me to do too much right away where all of the sudden I have a strained hamstring or something like that. Just to try to ease back into football," Waege said. "I mean, I feel fine. I was a little little sore this morning when I woke up after day one, but I wasn't bad. And right now I feel really good."

Once his knee gave way in Maryland, Waege's return was all but assured. He wasn't going to get a chance at professional football without showing he could play on the surgically repaired knee. Thanks to the NCAA allowing athletes an extra year of eligibility because of COVID, Waege gets the opportunity.

Waege watched last year's national title season from the sidelines, which he admits wasn't easy.

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North Dakota State senior defensive lineman Spencer Waege, right, suffered a knee injury against Towson (Maryland) on Sept. 18, 2021.
Dave Samson / The Forum

"It was hard honestly because you want to be still a good teammate, supportive and cheer on the other guys out there playing, but I mean in the back of your head you're still sitting there like, 'Heck, I wish I could play. Wish I go out there help them, especially when we're in dogfight games like Missouri State, or down in Brookings, or even JMU (James Madison) in the semifinals," Waege said. "Just all games that you wish you could have been out there helping your teammates and you just have to sit there on the sideline and just watch them battle it out."

Waege did get to celebrate on the field at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, after NDSU beat Montana State in the national championship game in January.

He was asked if he ran onto the field when the clock ran out.

"It was more like hopping on the field. Probably a little more than I should have," Waege said. "But it was it was fun. After the game in Frisco I kind forgot about everything that happened. It was just a celebrating with teammates. So that was kind of fun."

He hopes this season ends with a sprint onto the field in Texas.

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North Dakota State defensive end Spencer Waege warms up with teammates during the opening day of practice at Dacotah Field on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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