FARGO — The signature position in North Dakota State’s run of national titles has been signed on NFL draft weekend. Carson Wentz took center stage as the second overall pick with commissioner Roger Goodell in 2015.
Easton Stick was a third-day spotlight pick with the San Diego Chargers in 2019 as a fifth round choice. Trey Lance and Goodell shared a third overall pick hug in the draft last spring.
All high-profile players at the most high-profile position.
Linebacker at NDSU hasn’t been too shabby, either.
Jackson Hankey won’t hear his name called next spring at the NFL Draft in Las Vegas. He probably won’t have team general managers inquiring into a free agent contract.
After NDSU takes on Montana State Saturday in the Division I FCS national championship, the only people who will be asking about Hankey’s work status are those who would like to employ him.
And there are sure to be plenty of those. Hankey is another in a long line of poster children in the NCAA’s slogan “going pro in something other than sports.” He was the 2020 winner of the Elite 90 Award last year that goes to the athlete with the highest grade point average in each of the NCAA’s national championships.
“I love football,” Hankey said, “but I don’t think it’s quite in the cards for me and I don’t know how much I would necessarily want to do it either. It’s a very physical game and I’ve been playing it for a long time, so part of me is ready to be done doing that.”
As decorated as the Bison quarterbacks have been in the last decade, the linebackers have had their own line of tradition.
Hankey needs one stop to move into the school’s all-time top 10 list in career tackles. He has 319.
He needs eight to surpass Grant Olson, the NDSU linebackers coach.
Carlton Littlejohn had 345 from 2011-14 and Nick DeLuca had 329 from 2013-17.
“Really, it’s finding guys that can run sideline to sideline,” said Littlejohn, the linebackers coach at Minnesota State Moorhead. “In this day and age, you don’t need to be that huge, bruising linebacker anymore.
You don’t need to be 230 (pounds). And I know NDSU preaches all the time to run to the football. That’s how I made two-thirds of my tackles, just helping a play out.”
Of NDSU’s FCS linebackers, DeLuca was the biggest at 6-3 and 245 pounds. Olson went 228 pounds. Hankey came to NDSU as a 6-1, 217- pound walk-on from Park River, N.D. He’s gained all of two pounds in five years, but it’s a different physicality that he’s played with the past few years.
If there was ever one snapshot moment of his strength this season, it was against Indiana State when he stood up to hard-charging running back Peterson Kerlegrand on fourth-andgoal from the 1-yard line and put him to the turf for no gain.
Montana State middle linebacker Troy Andersen could get the most TV attention on Saturday, in part because Andersen is DeLuca size at 6-4 and 235 with NFL Draft potential. Hankey, meanwhile, will just go about his business of being in the right place at the right time.
“There are a lot of guys who can run a 4.4,” Hankey said of the 40-yard dash. “But if they can’t read a key well and trigger into a run fit or have good footwork, it’s not going to do them much good. Whereas likewise, you can be slower or less athletic or whatever, but if you understand the defense, if you can recognize what type of run game or what type of pass game you’re getting, you can get where you need to be without being overwhelmingly fast.”
Make no mistake, Hankey is athletic. He was a multisport star at Park River and the leader of one of NDSU’s greatest defenses of all time.
NDSU leads the FCS in scoring defense at 11.2 points per game.
“Find someone with character, that’s the first thing,” Littlejohn said.
“Someone who is selfless and wants to play football.
If you’re a walk-on, I’m sure he has no ego at all, came in ready to prove himself and was ready to work hard. If you have that mindset, it’s easy to get on the field because you’ll get that opportunity.”
Hankey got his opportunity as a starter as a sophomore in 2019, taking over for Dan Marlette.
He’s parlayed that into a top 10 tackling standing.
“If you would have told me that four, five years ago, I don’t think I would have believed you,” Hankey said. “But I’ve been really fortunate to stay healthy and to roll through here at a time when I was able to be a starter for a long period of time. So when I think about that, it’s really hard to believe.”
Hankey will have achieved his career status despite not taking an extra season of eligibility afforded by the pandemic.
Olson got his tackles in 55 games. Hankey is playing in his 55th and final game on Saturday.
Then it’s onto something else. Hankey plans to start a twoyear theological training with a career path taking him into the ministry.
It’s something he’s been thinking about for almost two years.
“In many ways, it’s done incorrectly and wrong and I think there’s a need for it to be done right and I have a desire to do that,” he said. “I also love to read and write, things like that.
Part of it is there is really a need for it and part of it is it’s something I really enjoy.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at email@example.com.