Ejected from a high school basketball game and facing a two-game suspension, North Dakota State recruit, Landon Lechler, had to grow up fast.
Playing for Beach (N.D.) High School, Lechler was being recruited by several regional colleges to play basketball and/or football. He was a two-time first team all-region offensive tackle under Buccaneers head coach Mike Zier, and he graded out to 98 percent as an offensive lineman according to NDSU.
But one quick decision involving an argument with a referee proved to define his senior year of high school.
“That was probably the worst three hours of my life,” Lechler said. “The game and the repercussions after that were tough.”
Lechler apologized to the referees and to fans via social media, but even then he said it was tough making things right with a Bowman community he had ties to.
“What I did was very childish,” Lechler said. “For everyone involved, tempers boiled over. That was one of the most regretful things I’ve ever done in my entire life … That was hard to deal with, but I made that decision and obviously I had to pay the consequences.”
But the Beach native didn’t have too much time to deal with the situation before he moved onto college. Lechler was a four-sport athlete who scored 1,000 points in basketball and was named a Class B all-state basketball player, which left him with some choices for college sports.
NDSU and University of North Dakota pushed for him to play football.
Lechler initially got in touch with the NDSU coaching staff through former NDSU lineman and Belfield, N.D., native Keith Buckman. The family of the former NFL camp invite reached out to the coaching staff after seeing Lechler play.
Former Bison offensive coordinator Brent Vigen, the team’s North Dakota recruiter at the time, and former head coach Craig Bohl both visited Beach during Lechler’s senior year twice.
He said he always knew he wanted to go to NDSU considering the agriculture program. His family went there. He grew up a Bison fan.
He had his mind just about made up until Dickinson (N.D.) State threw a curveball.
A full-ride scholarship to play both football and basketball.
Lechler was left to make up his mind the night before signing day.
“That’s when I started to second-guess myself,” he said. “I think deep down, DSU couldn’t hold it against me for taking NDSU.”
So Lechler signed up for a Bison career – and a culture shock.
Lechler admitted he had never seen a regimented weight room like at NDSU, which was a huge difference from his high school gym.
In fact, he can remember walking up the stairs on the way to weight-lifting sessions his first school year where he knew coaches were going to “wreck” his body.
“I was just reeling for anything,” Lechler said. “I was swamped in the playbook, had no idea what I was doing and school was totally different than small-town North Dakota. But I’ve grown up and matured a bit. It’s just a part of growing up.”
Battle for consistent improvement
Now a junior, Lechler doesn’t even call it practice or lifting. He just calls it work.
In 2012, Lechler weighed around 240 pounds and, as he called himself, “was a lanky basketball player wearing a football helmet.”
The junior now weighs around 312 pounds.
“Your body needs to adjust with it,” Bison offensive lineman coach Conor Riley said. “And your athleticism needs to adjust with that. He’s kind of gone from a long, lengthy body that’s a little out of control to now a big, physical offensive lineman who’s got very good body control and has good balance and has maintained a lot of that athleticism.”
In 2013, Lechler served as a backup left tackle behind Billy Turner, who was a first-team All-American and a third-round NFL draft pick. Joe Haeg, previously the right tackle, went to left, thus leaving Lechler to go to the right side.
Riley said offensive tackles are “out on an island” in pass protection, so he looks for athleticism and length in an offensive tackle. He also wants balance and solid footwork.
The biggest challenge for Lechler’s conversion, Riley said, was footwork and flexibility.
“You’re going to be protecting your inside with your left hand as opposed to your right,” he said. “So it’s about getting familiar with the mechanics of the position more or less.”
After gaining the weight and experience, Lechler still is hoping to get better.
And Riley would be quick to say how he can do so.
“I’d like to see him be a more consistently dominating player,” Riley said. “When you look at it from a technical standpoint, you need to seem use his hands better in pass protection. He’s an extremely long, strong person and I want him to use that more to his advantage.”
Mentally, Riley would like to see Lechler become more consistent with his aggression and his leadership abilities.
“What he needs to do is continue to challenge himself and challenge those around him and continue to get better every day,” Riley said. “Landon has a little bit of an edge to him in the way that he plays and I’d like to see that edge rub off on other players. I think he has qualities of leadership in order to do that.”
Lechler and fellow junior offensive lineman Jack Plankers began a regular rotation at the right tackle position since last season.
Both deserved to play, Riley said, but neither were ready to play every snap for the duration of a season. He wanted to keep them both fresh, especially if and when NDSU made the postseason.
The pair typically swap every two series until halftime, where both are notified who will get most of the remaining snaps depending on the opposition and the performance of the two.
Lechler said the decision is based on which of the duo has a better matchup with the defense.
“Plankers is all about brute strength, while I’m more of a snappier, aggressive guy and I’ll knock you off guard,” Lechler said. “Our playing styles are different, but we both see the game the same. We’re just making each other better and it’s for the betterment of the team, so that’s what we have to do.”
Of course, neither liked being pulled out of the game.
“But that’s one of the many qualities I truly appreciate about them,” Riley said. “More so than that was their selflessness to do what was best for the team. Both of them are extremely mature guys who not only take constructive criticism, but they also put this team very much in front of their own willingness or want to play.”
Lechler said Riley has noticed both he and Plankers have the same look in the eyes for a couple seconds after one is pulled.
“I’ll just come off after a drive sweating and gassed but ready to get back out there and Riley will tell me, ‘Alright, Plankers is going in the next one.’ He said he can always tell with me and Jack that we’ve got a certain look in our eyes that we just want to rip his head off for one or two seconds,” Lechler said.
Plankers said things could change after fall camp, but for right now, the rotation will remain the same.
Though from opposite ends of the state, Plankers, a Kindred, N.D., native, and Lechler have been playing together since high school. The summer before their high school senior years, the pair met during a Bison football camp and played again together as a guard-tackle duo in the 2012 Badlands Bowl.
Plankers has grown into the Bison system with Lechler since their first season three years ago, he said, and both have grown up physically and mentally.
“We both have come a long ways since freshman year,” Plankers said. “You’ve got the deer-in-the-headlights mentality and everything is brand new. You’re trying to adjust to the speed of the game.”
Plankers said he doesn’t mind backing up Lechler. In fact, it gives him a chance to figure out what defenses are going for before he steps on the field.
“We’ve been playing together for quite a while now,” Plankers said. “So when I come out, he tells me all I need to know and when he comes out, I tell him all he needs to know. There’s no real loss of experience or communication when we trade off.”
While most college offenses stick to five linemen, Plankers said the Bison rotate seven and don’t skip a beat thanks to communication and cohesiveness among personnel.
“Now we’re so much more of a complete unit,” Lechler said. “We’re constantly adding stuff and I think we’re all experienced enough now to be able to play with that.”
From one field to another
Though Lechler has a considerable time commitment to football, his family still needs his help back at the family farm. He said because he goes home so much, he’s developed a closer relationship with coach Jim Kramer, who specializes with strength and conditioning for the football team.
Whenever Lechler has to duck away from football, he keeps in touch with Kramer to make sure he stays on the scheduled regimen.
“He understands it. He’s from a small community,” Lechler said. “We’re able to talk more person-to-person, and not everyone has that relationship with him that I do.”
With a five-hour drive from Beach to Fargo, Lechler’s time is valuable, especially during a season of classes, practices and team meetings.
“Anytime I get off, I’m coming back to the farm,” Lechler said. “In the offseason, I usually go back about once a month because we’ll be lambing and calving because we’ve got livestock, too. I try to make it back as much as I can.”
Going into his fourth year of school, Lechler is a junior majoring in general agriculture. He started his college years with a crop and weed sciences major, but he wanted to be better prepared to for all aspects of his field.
That is, if the NFL doesn’t come knocking.
“If the professional opportunity isn’t there, I’m going to come back to Beach and take over the family farm and ranch,” Lechler said. “My step-family out in Glendive, Mont., has a business so I would help out there as much as I could. And then I would love to coach 9-man football at Beach High School.
“It would be fun. I think about it often. But that’s later in life, so maybe someday.”
Even during his teenage years, Lechler would miss time from the farm to practice.
“My dad was pretty annoyed when I would be at practice all the time,” Lechler said with a smile. “I would take my sweet time getting out to the farm, but he would be all fired up. Obviously, he supports me really well now, but it was a little comical. I was busy the whole year. Now I’m just busy with one sport now.”
Farming and living in a town of 1,000 isn’t the most glamourous lifestyle, and that’s OK with Lechler.
“I’m not really the rah-rah, look-at-me kind of guy,” he said. “I kind of like flying under the radar and just being the hard-working guy who people might not notice.”
Even if farming doesn’t work out, Lechler’s option No. 3 will still be in North Dakota.
“I love the state. I love the geography of the state and different places where people are from,” Lechler said. “I just love all of the levels and classes of sports we have. Class B basketball, you can’t beat that with the tradition it has. I have a lot of respect for all of the schools across the state.”
Even though it’s in state, NDSU has been a different world, Lechler said. One of his visits to campus was during the 2011 football game between the Bison and Northern Iowa in 2011, in which NDSU won 29-17. Most importantly, that game was when Bison Nation came alive and the Fargodome gained its rowdy reputation, Lechler said.
Winning an FCS national championship that year didn’t hurt Lechler’s odds of recruiting either.
Since joining the team, Lechler has gotten on the field for a national championship team as a redshirt freshman, started for another title team, lost two games during his three-year career, beaten three FBS teams and has three national title rings.
Not bad for a farm kid once ejected from a high school basketball game.
“I made the choice to come here. I wanted to at least try it and experience it once. I love the decision and it’s worked out well for me,” Lechler said. “The decision I made now, I’m happy with. Obviously I have to live with my choice, but I love it. I love the game of football.”