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Duluth's Atkinson among top recruits for new UMD football coach

Duluth East offensive lineman Nate Atkinson admits comparisons to former Duluth Central standout Garth Heikkinen are inevitable. Big kid, lots of talent, chooses to stay put and star for his hometown Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. That's a script Atk...

Duluth East offensive lineman Nate Atkinson admits comparisons to former Duluth Central standout Garth Heikkinen are inevitable.

Big kid, lots of talent, chooses to stay put and star for his hometown Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs.

That's a script Atkinson will gladly take.

Atkinson headlined a list of 25 UMD football recruits announced Wednesday as part of National Signing Day, and it might not be long before the 6-foot-5, 270-pound tackle helps fill the void left along UMD's left side after the departure of Heikkinen and Jake Bscherer.

Heikkinen, a guard, was named the NCAA Division II offensive lineman of the year as a senior this past fall and is a professional prospect.

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"A lot of players have said, 'You've got big shoes to fill,' " Atkinson said. "That's OK. That's my goal in life: to live up to Garth's standards. I'm ready for the challenge. I want it. What Garth has done is very inspiring."

Atkinson said he received interest from NCAA Division I Minnesota and I-AA North Dakota and North Dakota State, as well as most of the schools in the DII Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which includes UMD. He said St. Cloud State also made him a scholarship offer.

"Others were planning on making offers, but I told them not to waste their time," said Atkinson, who committed to UMD the day after receiving a scholarship offer in early December. "I've wanted to go to UMD ever since I was little."

When you're Atkinson's size, that is a long time.

The big kid has shown he is mobile for his size and averaged 42 yards a punt for the Greyhounds this fall. He said gaining strength is the key. He currently bench presses about 310 pounds.

"Nate is that lean, tall, athletic kid you're looking for," said UMD offensive line coach Peter Lue. "He has the opportunity to add weight but still be flexible and fast. We've been fortunate here to have some great linemen, and if you look at Nate compared to the rest of our guys, he fits in. It's exciting."

Atkinson, of Lakewood Township, was the first recruit to commit to UMD, with all the rest coming after former offensive coordinator Curt Wiese was named head coach on Dec. 21.

Wiese's hire came just two days after Bulldogs coach Bob Nielson stepped down to take the head coaching position at Western Illinois. Nielson helped lead the Bulldogs to national titles in 2008 and 2010.

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While filling the head coaching position undoubtedly helped ease things for other potential recruits, it didn't matter for Atkinson. He was born to be a Bulldog.

"It's been my dream to play at UMD for as long as I remember. It was a no-brainer for me," Atkinson said. "It's a great school with great coaches -- all of them. Nielson was a great coach, but you can tell people have the utmost respect for Coach Wiese, too. The success of the program speaks for itself."

UMD recruits at a glance

Wiese's first recruiting class is balanced between offense and defense.

The bedrock of the program over the last five years has been the offensive line, and Wiese brought in five recruits projected there. Five defensive backs are listed, some of whom could play immediately, while none of the scholarship signees are running backs.

"That was intentional," Wiese said. "We feel really good about the depth of our running backs, but we had some holes to fill in other spots. We felt like we addressed that while adding some depth to our roster."

There are three groups of high school teammates and three players from outside UMD's usual recruiting range: linebacker Shane Bruning of LeRoy, Ill., defensive back Hunter Malberg of North Bend, Wash., and offensive lineman Ryan Radzak of Harrisburg, S.D. UMD had a connection to each, with Malberg, for instance, having relatives in the area and Radzak's father, Joe, being a Bulldogs alum.

Former Cook County star Kale Boomer heads the list of four non-scholarship signees, often called a recruited or preferred walk on.

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"I always say in Division II we're under a salary cap," said UMD defensive coordinator John Steger. "You only have so much. You try to spread it out the best you can, but it's definitely not an exact science. To be invited onto our roster is a pretty select group. (Former NFL prospect and UMD career sacks leader) Russ Rabe was a walk on, and you could say he turned out to be a pretty good."

Soccer

Greyhounds goalkeeper Lyle to Missouri Western

Duluth East goalkeeper Sarah Lyle signed Wednesday to play soccer at Missouri Western State in St. Joseph, Mo.

The News Tribune All-Area selection had 15 shutouts and 278 saves in 34 games with the Greyhounds. She finished 10th in the state in saves this season with 165.

Lyle drew the attention of the Griffons at a showcase tournament in Missouri as part of East Select Soccer.

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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