Prior to their clash with Northern Iowa on Oct. 28, Bison head coach Chris Klieman had a hunch. Knowing opposing quarterback Eli Dunne would be content to sit in the pocket, Klieman was prepared to bring pressure. He knew just the man for it.
“I didn’t think they could block DeLuca, let’s be honest,” the head coach told reporters following the game.
He was spot on.
Nick DeLuca, senior captain and linebacker from Omaha, Neb., proved his coach right. DeLuca had two strip sacks in the 30-14 victory over the Panthers, both of which were scooped up by partner in crime Levi Jordheim.
“It means a lot,” DeLuca said of Klieman’s postgame praise. “I’ve got nothing but respect for Coach Klieman. He’s always been a guy that’s somebody you want to play for and a coach that cares about his players. We really try and play for each other and play for him every week.”
The Herd’s defense has been one of the top units in the FCS this season, ranking second in both scoring and total defense, third in pass defense, seventh in sacks, and eighth in rush defense. At the center of it all is DeLuca.
If you want to know how good DeLuca is, others will tell you.
“I know one thing; you ask our defensive guys what a big lift [it is] when No. 49 is playing. It’s a big lift to our team,” Klieman said after NDSU topped Missouri State and DeLuca returned from a two game hiatus for a meniscus injury.
In NDSU’s game programs, Tre Dempsey concedes that one of his bucket list items is to “be better than Nick DeLuca, which is almost impossible.”
“We kind of joke back and forth about that. We’re always challenging each other. That’s the fun atmosphere we have on this team,” DeLuca explained. “We’re so close and we love to joke around. I think it takes us to the next level as far as our togetherness, and it shows itself out on the field.”
Still, injuries have clouded the captain’s tenure with the Bison. Besides being sidelined two games this year, DeLuca missed all but three games a season ago to repair a torn labrum resulting from a shoulder injury suffered in NDSU’s first game.
It was likely that the NCAA would grant DeLuca medical hardship for the lost season, seeing as how he met the guidelines, but it was not until December 21st that the decision was formalized. DeLuca just could not go out that way.
“That was huge. I really wasn’t ready for everything to be over,” the linebacker commented. “It kind of forced me to take a step back and really appreciate every little thing that I may not have really noticed before. I took everything into a new perspective and it was really awesome. It was a blessing in disguise, looking back on it.”
Back for one final year of eligibility, DeLuca has reaffirmed what made him an NFL prospect going into 2016, piling up 48 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. The linebacker, who has started at both the Mike and Will positions this year, dives into the action and makes plays each game that leave onlookers and scouts awestruck.
Equally indispensable to the Bison has been DeLuca’s leadership. Being named captain for two consecutive seasons is a distinction the senior holds in high regard. “I think honestly that is the biggest honor I can receive. That’s something I appreciate, and the respect from my teammates is something I appreciate more than what anyone else has to say,” said DeLuca.
While senior leadership is always at a premium in the Bison’s program, youth has been served in 2017. Jabril Cox, James Hendricks, and Derrek Tuszka have all made sizeable impacts on the defense at a young age, and this blend of old and new has served NDSU well.
“I think we’ve been playing at a really high level and over the course of the season just continue to get better. Guys are really playing hard,” DeLuca said of the defense. “I know we’ve had some injuries and that’s been tough, but young guys have really stepped up, older guys have done a really god job leading, and it’s shown out there on the field.”
Backed by his defense and an offense regaining its form, DeLuca and the Bison are looking to secure the outright Missouri Valley championship this weekend. The recipe to do so is simple: defeat Illinois State.
“We love being in the driver’s seat. What we always say is we control our own destiny,” the senior remarked. “As long as we can continue to keep going 1-0 every week and not look too far ahead and just focus on each game in front of us, I think we’ll be successful in that aspect.”
For DeLuca though, it can be a challenge not to gaze too far down the line at a future playing on Sundays. His standout plays once again have him in the cross-hairs of the NFL, and it is an opportunity of a lifetime to him.
“That’s something that I’ve kind of gone back and forth with. It’s tough because obviously I’m trying to enjoy every last bit of my season and my time here at NDSU because it’s been so special and I have such great relationships here,” said the Omaha native.
That being said, the next step draws closer with each passing day. “You kind of have to have that in the back of your head and look forward and be prepared for that – that next level, that next chapter of your life,” he stated. “It’s something that I’m really excited for, but I’m just trying to enjoy the season. It’s going to be a fun opportunity to see where it takes me.”
Along with 19 other seniors, DeLuca took the field on his own against South Dakota, met with a cacophony of applause from the Bison faithful. While he described the moment as surreal, standing front and center is not exactly his ideal place. “I don’t like the spotlight. I don’t like attention on me. I’d rather deflect it towards the team,” DeLuca said.
Firmly in the heart of NDSU’s defense, it is impossible for Nick DeLuca to avoid the spotlight. On the precipice of a playoff berth, an opportunity for redemption, DeLuca stands out, ready for one final ride.