Former Fargo Davies DL Noel continuing to elevate his game for Dragons
Minnesota State Moorhead defensive end Justice Noel is a versatile player for the Dragons football team.
MOORHEAD — Before games, Minnesota State Moorhead defensive lineman Justice Noel pays tribute to his late grandparents.
Noel writes the initials of Robert Woodbury and Patricia Woodbury on the tape on his left wrist, something he's been doing since his senior season in high school at Fargo Davies.
“I like to honor them before I go out on the field," Noel said.
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Noel has become a regular along the Dragons defensive line, playing in all 11 games last fall. He finished with 30 total tackles and 1-1/2 sacks.
“He’s continuing to elevate his game and that’s been really good to see," said Dragons head coach Steve Laqua.
The Dragons are in the midst of spring practices and Noel is a key component of one of the team's most efficient position groups. Junior Denver Sheets, senior Hayden Carr, sophomore Abe Hestdalen, junior Alec White and Noel are all veterans with varying levels of experience.
“I love our group. I feel like we’re almost the backbone of the defense," Noel said. "We like to set the tone in practice. We’re all very good leaders, especially the older guys in the group.”
Sheets, Hestdalen and Carr all had three sacks last fall.
“They’ve gelled together nicely and are working on bringing the young guys around," Laqua added. “Our defensive line has continually been a strength for us.”
Noel was coming off a knee injury last fall that forced him to miss most of the 2021 season. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first college game at Southwest Minnesota State in September 2021.
“I went to make a tackle and I felt my knee pop as I tried to plant it," Noel recalled. “I tried to take a step and I just went down.”
Noel said it was moments after the injury that he decided he was going to return with a higher level of determination.
“When it happened and I was sitting there on the injury bench, I decided I could either sit here and be sad about it or I could put my head down and do the work in my recovery," Noel said. "I think I showed the latter.”
Noel said it took until three games into last season when he felt like he was getting back to full strength off the knee injury.
“It was definitely a big adjustment I had to make," said Noel, who graduated from Davies in 2020. "It was going on like 2-1/2 years of not playing a football game in its entirety."
Laqua said Noel has been focused this offseason to improve on his development during last season.
“After being away from it, you’re hungry and then you get a taste of maybe how good he could be," Laqua said. "You see him continue to build on that. ... He’s really been attacking the process.”
Noel was a two-year starter at Davies and also played basketball for the Eagles. He relished playing defense on the basketball court, which has helped him also develop as a football player.
“I was a big defensive guy during basketball, the footwork for that definitely transfers to football really well," Noel said.
Noel has proved to be a versatile player for the Dragons with the ability to play defensive end or defensive tackle with his combination of size and athletic ability. Laqua said Noel is also a balanced player when it come to his ability to rush the passer and stop the run.
“He’s become very versatile where he moves really well and is strong enough to play down inside," Laqua said. "That’s the nice thing that allows him to be on the field in multiple situations. ... He’s an every-down guy that you can rely on.”
Noel said he's improved from the end of the fall season and he's trying to keep that momentum going through spring practices.
“I feel like I’ve improved a lot," Noel said. "I’ve got a lot of trust in my knee now. ... I think my pass-rush skills have developed. I’ve grown more versatile in my moves and I feel a lot more solid in my run defense as well.”
Laqua loves Noel's grit.
“He’s a tough kid," Laqua said. "He’s been tough on the field. He’s been tough as far as work ethic and practice effort everyday. You keep doing that long enough, it puts you in a good position to succeed.”