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College football: UMD’s Malberg excited to take on teammates in spring game

Minnesota Duluth defensive back Hunter Malberg looks forward to playing in his first spring game today. Steve Kuchera /

Safety Hunter Malberg committed to playing football at Northern Colorado, a Football Championship Subdivision program, when the Bears told him in December 2012 they no longer had an athletic scholarship available.

That forced Malberg to scramble.

“I had to start the entire recruiting process all over again,” he said.

Malberg, of North Bend, Wash., wound up at Minnesota Duluth, and both he and the Bulldogs are better for it. Malberg, who was the only true freshman to play for UMD last fall, will play in his first Maroon-White Spring Game at 6 p.m. today at Malosky Stadium. The game is the culmination of spring practice.

“I’m really excited. It’s going to be great just getting the pads back on and getting after it, even if it’s against your teammates,” Malberg said. “There is plenty of banter in the locker room, so bragging rights are definitely on the line.”

Malberg, who turned 19 last month, was one of about a dozen athletes at Mount Si High School who looked at playing college football following their senior year in 2012-13. That fall, the team was knocked out of the Washington large-school state semifinals by the nation’s No. 1 team, the Bellevue Wolverines.

After the Northern Colorado slight, Malberg began sending his highlight video to various schools. He was familiar with Minnesota because his grandparents, Richard and Phyllis Smith, live in Duluth, and Bemidji State, which had connections to Washington, had recruited him.

“I kind of recruited myself to Duluth,” Malberg said. “I got a hold of (then-UMD assistant coach) Jake Landry.     It was kind of a funny call. I told him all this stuff about myself, and he was like, ‘Uh, OK.’ They get hundreds of calls like that, so I don’t know why he answered for some reason. Things happened real fast.”

Malberg sent his highlight tape to UMD, and the Bulldogs called back a couple hours later. UMD coach Curt Wiese said each Bulldog coach receives about 25 videos every day during the recruiting period but something about Malberg stuck out.

“Jake called me right away, saying, ‘You’ve got to watch this kid,’ ” Wiese recalled. “A few days later he was a Bulldog.”

Malberg already had a visit planned to Bemidji and added a second trip to Duluth.

“Both have great programs, but the tradition here is hard to argue with,” Malberg said. “I saw coach Wiese’s two national championship rings, and I was just like, ‘Wow. I want one of those.’ ”

Malberg came to Duluth last June to get a jump on college, and the additional time paid off as the Bulldogs decided not to redshirt him. With former UMD safety Travis Nordhus serving as a mentor, Malberg worked his way into the regular rotation by midseason, playing mostly at safety but also having the ability to play cornerback.

Malberg made two interceptions in UMD’s season-ending playoff loss at Northwest Missouri State.

“Hunter has a chance to be a special player,” UMD defensive coordinator John Steger said. “From an athletic standpoint, he is unique with the coverage skills of a corner but the physical ability of a safety. He gained a lot of confidence last year and will only get better.”

Safety always has been a playmaking position in Steger’s defense, with the likes of Tyler Yelk, Jim Johnson, Cameron Harper and Nordhus being some of the recent standouts. Malberg could be next.

With three starters graduating, UMD’s defensive secondary was supposed to be a question mark going into the offseason but could wind up being a strength.

Malberg, David Boegel and Tyler Smrcina return at safety, while Darion Fletcher and Larry Rice return at corner. Transfer Daryl Brown, a former standout at North Dakota, should make an impact.

“We’re young, but guys are hungry,” Malberg said. “We should be in the running for a national title. I truly believe that. We’ve got a great group of guys, so the sky is the limit for us. It really is.”

Malberg admits to being homesick and said the long winter wore on him, but having his grandparents here has helped. Grandpa Richard used to attend three or four of Hunter’s high school games in Washington each year. Last fall, he attended all of UMD’s home games.

“Grandpa went from traveling four hours, to five minutes,” Malberg said. “Having him here has just been a blessing because I’ve been able to develop such a strong relationship with him.

“Everything happens for a reason, and I’m pretty happy here. This was God’s plan for me.”