Heagle, Dudzik form safety belt in Bison defense
Fargo - They’re both about 5-foot-10 inches tall, but Colten Heagle hits like a Mack truck and Christian Dudzik is race-car fast. Their personalities, their leadership qualities and their academic paths are different.
What hasn’t changed over the years – and we mean years because you’re talking about two North Dakota State football players who have already played the equivalent in games of five seasons – is their dependability in the Bison secondary. They are rocks.
It certainly hasn’t been easy, and they could almost put a sign up in the NDSU backfield: The safety positions are hazardous to your health. Shoulders, knees, hands – it doesn’t matter – not much on their frames has been spared of some type of ailment.
“When you play a season this long, it does take a toll,” Dudzik said.
Dudzik will be making his 60th career start Friday tonight when the Bison host Sam Houston State in the NCAA Division I FCS semifinals at Gate City Bank at the Fargodome. Heagle will be playing in his 57th career game.
That’s a lot of dependability since Heagle played as a true freshman in 2010.
“I’m definitely glad they’re on our side. That’s for sure,” said senior receiver Trevor Gebhart, another veteran rock on the team. “They are phenomenal players and great leaders on the field. It’s an awesome thing to have in this program, and it’s been fun to watch.”
Heagle was named to the Walter Camp, Associated Press and the FCS coaches All-America first teams earlier this week, along with defensive end Kyle Emanuel and offensive tackle Joe Haeg. Heagle earlier this season passed linebacker Joe Mays, who now plays with the Kansas City Chiefs, as the NDSU career leader in solo tackles with 184. They are arguably two of the hardest hitters pound-for-pound in program history.
“He is a hitter and a great tackler,” said Bison cornerback C.J. Smith.
He also overcame a torn ACL early in 2012 that caused him to take a medical hardship. He played in the FCS semifinals against Georgia Southern in the 2011 semifinals after returning earlier than recommended from a wrist injury.
Playing with a large wrap, he turned in a signature career performance with 15 tackles against the Eagles’ vaunted triple option offense. This year, both Heagle and Dudzik have been slow to get up from the field on several occasions, only to go back in the game a few plays later.
In essence, they’ve played seasons almost as long as NFL players.
“I don’t know how they do it,” Heagle said of the NFL veterans, “but sometimes they have better facilities and NFL guys don’t practice in pads as much as we do. But I think that’s why we’ve been successful – how hard we work.”
The long seasons are most noticeable in the critical weight training months of January through March, said NDSU director of sports medicine Scott Woken. Playing into January prevents players like Dudzik and Heagle adequate time to recover.
“It does take a toll,” Woken said. “It if happens once every three or four years, you’ll get some time to recover. It’s just the timing. We can’t afford to give them too much time off to get ready for the next season.”
At most, Dudzik will be able to play in 61 career games hinging on a Bison win against Sam Houston. It would keep him one game from tying the FCS career record for games played of 62 by Appalachian State linebacker Pierre Banks. Emanuel will also be playing in his 60th game today.
“They’re beat up, but a lot of people are beat up, and they’re never going to make an excuse,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. “They know they have to play at a high level for us to be successful.”
Klieman and the safeties have been invested to the run of success in more ways than just a coach and a player. Klieman arrived in NDSU as the defensive backs coach in 2011, became the defensive coordinator in 2012 and the head coach this season.
He ties his job promotions directly to the talent and character of all the players that have been there with him – like Dudzik and Heagle.
“They are guys who have helped me get to where I am today in this profession,” Klieman said. “They are guys that mean a lot to me personally and mean a lot to my family personally. They are guys that I’ll have a long relationship with long after football.”
They are safeties who learned the trade of the Tampa 2 defense at a rather quick pace. It can be complex at times and requires quick adjustments depending on offensive sets.
It’s to the point where Klieman and defensive backs Joe Klanderman don’t so much have to coach them but work with them on the best alignment on particular offensive looks.
“I think he picked it up a little quicker than I did because he did a little more in high school what we do here,” Dudzik said of Heagle. “So we’ve grown up and learned the game the same.”
Dudzik started as a cornerback as a freshman out of team necessity, but was switched to a more natural-looking free safety spot as a sophomore. Since Heagle was hurt most of 2012, they’ve only been a safety tandem the last two seasons – it just seems like longer.
Tonight, it will be their final game at the Fargodome. It almost seems like an impossible moment.
“They give you a sense of confidence,” Gebhart said. “They’ve played a lot of snaps, a lot of football games so no matter what and no matter who we’re going against, you automatically assume we’ll have more experience and better leadership than the teams we face.”