Joe Haeg’s journey to North Dakota State University has gone from being a recruited walk-on to being put on a football scholarship this season.
Earning a scholarship isn’t the most exciting thing that has happened to the 2010 Brainerd High School graduate. The 6-6, 280-pound redshirt freshman will start at right offensive tackle Saturday night when the defending Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Bison open the season at the Fargodome against Robert Morris.
“Yeah, I’ll be a little nervous, but I’ll also be excited to be out there and start hitting people besides guys in green and yellow,” Haeg said Tuesday from Fargo. “I’m pretty excited. The atmosphere at the Fargodome, about 20,000 people, they’ve sold all the tickets. It will be crazy. I’m really pumped.”
The Bison are ranked No. 1 in the FCS Coaches Poll, receiving 19 of 26 first-place votes. They return 13 starters, including All-America cornerback Marcus Williams, quarterback Brock Jensen and 1,000-yard running back Sam Ojuri.
“Even though we won the national championship, (the coaches are saying) we’re a different team, we’re our own separate team,” Haeg said. “We’ve set our own bars and our own goals and hope to reach them.”
A summer of rising daily at 5 a.m., weightlifting from 5:30 to 7 a.m., working a full-time job at 8 a.m. and finishing the day with agility dills has paid off for Haeg, who will fill the spot vacated by graduated All-American Paul Cornick.
“In spring ball, I went in and learned a lot more, technique-wise, became fundamentally sound I would say,” Haeg said. “I was still a backup left tackle (in spring ball) then I was up here all summer working out with the team.
“This fall, I came in and had quite a few good practices and got a chance at right tackle. I started doing well there, and now I’m starting.”
Haeg thought he might have a chance to start “but I knew it wasn’t the best chance. I thought it was less than 50-50, but I just came in, worked hard and got the right (tackle) spot.”
NDSU offensive line coach Scott Fuchs said Haeg came into camp in 2011 and was an athletic player, but was undersized.
“He put on a lot of good weight throughout the season and the winter and got himself up to 282,” Fuchs wrote in an email. “He had a good spring ball and came in and competed hard for the starting spot this fall.
“He’s a smart, athletic football player. I credit him for not sitting back and waiting for his turn to play. The competition has pushed him and so far he has done a good job of rising to the challenge.
“We would like him to continue gaining weight. I think he will eventually play at around 300-plus pounds. I think Joe will continue to improve throughout the season.”
In 2011, the Bison compiled a 14-1 record on their way to defeating Sam Houston State University 17-6 in the FCS championship game at Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas. As a red-shirt, Haeg practiced with the team, was on the sidelines with the Bison and received a national championship ring.
“You definitely don’t get the full feel of winning a national championship because you’re not able to play,” Haeg said, “but I definitely felt part of the team, that I helped out, and made a difference even though I was just a scout team player.”
Haeg hopes to be a season-long starter, but he’ll play whatever role NDSU wants him to play.
“It comes down to whatever’s best for the team is what I’m down for,” he said. “If I don’t start, then I want to do whatever’s best for the team.
“Our offensive line last year had quite a few injuries. A lot of guys moved around. I just want to help out, start as many games as I can, do what’s best for the team and do my best.”
At BHS, Haeg was a two-year starter, and three-year letterwinner. His junior and senior years he helped the Warriors win two Section 8-5A championships, and upset Eden Prairie and Centennial in the Class 5A state quarterfinals. In 2010, he was an all-state, all-section, all-conference and Brainerd Dispatch All-Area selection. As a junior he made the all-section team.
Playing for the Warriors made an impact on him, as a player and a person, and prepared him for the next level.
“Coach (Ron) Stolski and the entire coaching staff, the entire tradition, even though you weren’t starting at BHS they taught you morals, to work hard and always do your best,” Haeg said. “They were trying to get the best out of you, all the stuff down to being a great person.”