FARGO -- It’s one thing for the North Dakota State middle linebacker to direct his defense in the quiet confines of the Dacotah Field bubble. Next fall, Jackson Hankey will be doing that in front of 19,000 fans at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome who are bent on distracting the opponent’s offense.
There’s no room for being tentative.
And taking charge is what NDSU head coach Matt Entz has seen in the sophomore from Park River, N.D., this spring. With the departure of senior Dan Marlette, Hankey is the new man in the middle.
The position is commonly called middle linebacker, but NDSU players and coaches refer it as the “mike” linebacker.
“Playing mike linebacker, that’s the nature of the position,” Hankey said. “You have to be able to communicate, you have to be able to get people lined up and make sure everybody on defense is on the same page.”
That job has a stout Division I lineage at NDSU starting with Joe Mays over a decade ago. That baton was handed off to the likes of Preston Evans, Grant Olson and Nick DeLuca.
Now it appears to be Hankey’s turn.
“We’ve seen him grow and he’s taken the leadership role that the mike linebacker has to possess here at NDSU,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “Historically, it’s an important piece of what we do defensively going back through the years. He knows there’s some things he needs to work on but he keeps climbing and showing a lot of good things.”
The 6-foot-1, 223-pound Hankey has made the climb from small-school Park River, N.D. He was a walkon who committed to NDSU after the 2017 signing day class was announced, but made an almost immediate impression on the Bison coaches on how quickly he understood the complicated Tampa 2 defense.
“Every year, every spring ball, every fall camp I feel more confident each time,” Hankey said. “I have a better grasp of our defense and how I fit into that so I’d say as the years go by, you continue to gain more and more confidence.”
As the years go by, he gains a better grasp of what everybody else on the defense is doing, too. The middle linebacker not only has to know his job, it pays to know what everybody else’s job is.
“For me, I like to think of things that way conceptually,” Hankey said. “If I know what the guy next to me is doing, it’s a lot easier for me to know where I need to be.”
He doesn’t have to go far for advice. Olson returned to NDSU this winter as the team’s linebackers coach. When Olson manned the middle from 2010-13, he was noted for his brain power just as much as his tackling power.
“We still watch a lot of film that he’s in,” Hankey said. “He’s similar to myself where he wasn’t maybe the most athletic guy but he knew where to be.”
Olson’s tenure was about the time when the Fargodome turned into a rock concert when opposing teams had the ball. It not only puts the heat on the quarterback, but it forces the NDSU middle linebacker to be sharp with his own calls.
“You have to be more reliant on hand signals and non-verbal communication,” Hankey said. “Obviously you can’t yell at the guy next to you and he’s not going to know what you’re saying. So that’s where everybody needs to be on the same page as far as hand signals and how we communicate.”