UND football Week 1 primer: How to watch, injuries and matchups with Drake

Sep. 1—GRAND FORKS — Through mid-November last season, the UND football team only gave up more than 180 yards rushing to an opponent once — 244 yards to FBS Nebraska in the season opener.

But the Fighting Hawks closed the season giving up 363 rushing yards and six touchdowns to North Dakota State, followed by Weber State running for 330 yards and four scores as UND bowed out of the FCS playoffs.

That meant UND entered the offseason with the No. 1 goal of finding a run-stopping defensive lineman in the NCAA Transfer Portal.

Enter 315-pound fifth-year senior Jeffrey Griffin Jr. from Northern Illinois.

"I was brought in to be the anchor on the defensive line and stop the run," Griffin Jr. said. "During recruiting, they wanted to bring someone in to physically impose their will. So I come in every day and try to be the game-changer I can be."

With the addition of two FBS transfers on the defensive line and the development of the youth on the defensive line, UND feels more versatile heading into Saturday's season opener at 3 p.m. against Drake at the Alerus Center.

"At the end of last season, we saw we needed to handle big personnel," first-year defensive coordinator Joel Schwenzfeier said. "On the flip side, you're going to face teams that go up-tempo and spread you out. You have to have multiple body types and skill-set variation. The thing that makes it all work is the different body types in the box."

UND lists starters on the defensive line as Griffin Jr., veteran Jaelen Johnson and all-Missouri Valley Football Conference pass rusher Ben McNaboe.

But UND feels it has more capable bodies to rotate this season. New Mexico transfer Jake Saltonstall and fifth-year senior Barty Ogbu provide size at defensive end, while junior Craig Orlando and senior Elijah Beach offer skill sets that can play both nose and end. Sophomore Casey Schultz and redshirt freshman Jack Teiken — pass-rushing ends — are also taking a step forward in their young careers.

"That's probably been our strength through fall camp," Schwenzfeier said. "Jake and Jeff will be great to have in there. They're physically mature and they've played some football, so they know how to handle it. Ben is a real good pass rusher and Jack will be in the same mold. Barty can play a little of everything. Casey Schultz is an athletic body who can rush. It's nice to have that versatility in the room."

Schwenzfeier said the versatility has made learning the defense easier for the line because they can focus on a particular opposing alignment rather than needing to know every formation.

Griffin Jr. said he's excited for his change of scenery.

"I got beat out by some really good guys over there (at Northern Illinois) for the starting spot," he said. "I was there for five years. You can get comfortable with life, and I didn't want to get comfortable with it. I wanted to seek another home."

Griffin Jr.'s position coach at NIU was former UND defensive line coach Jordan Gigli.

"Coach Gigli helped a lot," Griffin Jr. said. "He said nothing but good things and had a good relationship with Coach Bubba. He thought it'd be a good fit with the scheme. It's peaceful (in Grand Forks). It's a culture change, but it's peaceful. It's positive vibes."

Kickoff: 3 p.m.

Where: Alerus Center

TV: Midco Sports, Brian Shawn play-by-play, Ryan Kasowski analyst, Taylor Budge sideline

Radio: 96.1 FM, Jack Michaels play-by-play, Mike Berg analyst, Paul Ralston sideline

Injuries: UND should be mostly healthy in the season opener. Backup center Danny Carroll is out for an extended time with an injury. The Hawks have used a number of linemen in practice to have options after starting center Cade Borud.

The Fighting Hawks need to establish the run game and play cleaner than the 2021 matchup with Drake in which UND won 38-0 but struggled with fumbles. In that 2021 game, both Isaiah Smith and Luke Skokna ran for more than 100 yards. Smith, now a more established product, should have another big game, while UND will also see run production from Gaven Ziebarth. UND's offensive line is expected to have a better push this season with experience across the board, minus the first-time start for center Cade Borud.

The Bulldogs need to test UND's unproven defense. The Fighting Hawks expect to improve defensively under new leadership and with transfer additions on the line, but the UND defensive unit as a whole enters 2023 with lots of question marks especially at safety and outside linebacker, where the Hawks elected not to address those positions in the transfer portal and will need in-house products to up their production.