Curtain call: Larson, UMD seniors hope to end career in style
Nick Larson laughs whenever he gets asked if he used to play quarterback in high school.
That's because you'd never know it now.
The 6-foot, 235-pound Larson is officially listed on the Minnesota Duluth roster as a tight end, but the "J-back" as the Bulldogs call it, is a hybrid position incorporating elements of fullback. Nobody moves around on offense more.
"You're the adjustor," Larson said.
Larson is one of 18 UMD seniors who will play college football for the last time when the Bulldogs (9-2) take on Central Missouri (8-3) in the 52nd annual Mineral Water Bowl at noon today in Excelsior Springs, Mo. UMD, which was left out of the NCAA Division II playoffs in controversial fashion, will make its third Mineral Water Bowl appearance and second in the past three years.
This isn't what UMD had pictured before the season, but the Bulldogs are trying to put a positive spin on it.
"We're taking this as a great opportunity and having fun with it," Larson said. "These seniors are some of my best friends, and this might be the last time where we're all together, so we're going to try to get after it."
UMD closed the regular season with eight straight wins only to be leapfrogged by Colorado State-Pueblo, previously unranked in the region. For its part, Pueblo gave Minnesota State-Mankato all it could handle in the opening round of the playoffs, falling 16-13 in overtime.
UMD coach Curt Wiese won't point at other teams for comparison. He felt what the Bulldogs did deserved a selection on its own. UMD surged into November allowing zero offensive touchdowns over a four-game stretch.
UMD, which closed the regular season Nov. 11, took a longer break than it normally would, just to ease the bitterness of the selection snub.
"We were disappointed to say the least, so we took time away, just to decompress a little bit," Wiese said. "We're hoping there isn't too much residual effect from that. We can control our attitude and our effort and take pride in our football program."
Wiese said few people take as much pride in the program as Larson, who went from walk-on to regular the past two years.
"Nick's a guy who has worked his way into his position," Wiese said. "Statistically, he may not have had a glamour career, but in our eyes, there is a lot of respect for what he's done for the program."
Larson, of Shakopee, Minn., did indeed play quarterback in high school, but it's not exactly what one might think. Running out of a bunched single-wing offense, with only 6-inch splits between linemen, it was 3 yards and a cloud of dust.
"The quarterback often would be a lead blocker," Larson said. "For what I'm doing now, it definitely wasn't a big jump."
Larson also played catcher in baseball and was the proverbial garbage man in basketball, banging with the big guys inside and grabbing rebounds.
"I'm always getting hit by stuff," Larson said, laughing.
Larson started his UMD career as a running back before switching to J-back after his second year, realizing his skills were better suited for that of a human battering ram. He's added about 30 pounds of muscle since high school as he transitioned from the most glamorous position in football to one of the least.
"I'd 100 percent agree with that," Larson said. "Sometimes I think of it like being a third guard. I kind of outgrew running back, or was just too slow. One of those two."
Offensive lineman Nolan Folkert, who was selected to the NCAA Division II Conference Commissioner's Association All-Super Region Four Second Team on Friday, has gotten the bulk of UMD's short-yardage runs the past two seasons, rushing for 10 touchdowns on 15 carries.
"Nolan is really good at it, so it's hard to say he shouldn't get the ball because I don't think he's really ever been stopped," Larson said. "I like to say they're too busy guarding me."
That's not to say Larson never gets to have some fun.
The secondary math major is UMD's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee president. He finishes in the spring with his student teaching and is still looking for a job. He has two carries for 15 yards this season and 16 carries for 65 yards for his career. He also has four receptions for 27 yards but has never scored a college touchdown.
"That's been a goal of mine for a very long time, and I've got one more chance to do it," Larson said. "I want them to call a play where I can run right behind Nolan, because I feel like he owes me one. You never know."
MINNESOTA DULUTH VS. CENTRAL MISSOURI
What: 52nd annual Mineral Water Bowl, annual postseason clash between the NSIC and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association
When: noon Saturday
Where: Tiger Stadium (4,500 capacity, artificial turf), Excelsior Springs, Mo.
Records: UMD 9-2, Central Missouri 8-3
Excelsior forecast: Sunny with a high of 60 and 1 mph wind
Radio: KDAL 610 AM and 103.9 FM, kdal610.com