College football: Lake Nebagamon's Pearson is a shooting star for UMD
The Minnesota Duluth football team was expecting big things out of outside linebacker Nate Pearson last fall, but the redshirt freshman from Lake Nebagamon suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason that hindered his progress.
This season, Pearson appears to be making up for lost time.
Pearson had four tackles in the Bulldogs' 60-7 NSIC rout of visiting Minnesota State-Moorhead last week, including two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack in which he forced a fumble and recovered it. That's the old trifecta, a play that could have only gotten better if Pearson picked up the football and scored.
"There was a small chance for that, but I got on the ball a little too late," Pearson said, laughing.
Going into today's 6 p.m. NSIC clash at St. Cloud State, Pearson is second to senior Alex Helmer with eight tackles while leading the Bulldogs with two quarterback sacks.
"Last week was the best Nate has played since he's been here, and he is continuing to get better each week," UMD coach Curt Wiese said. "He is developing as a pass rusher and is an important piece of our defense."
Pearson was recruited by UMD defensive coordinator John Steger out of Northwestern High School, where he was a three-sport star, and Pearson said he couldn't beat being able to play scholarship football "in his backyard," where friends and family could watch him play.
Pearson was a three-year starter in basketball and jumped nearly 22 and a half feet in track and field. He was a state qualifier in the long jump and sprint relays. In football he ran for more yards (4,157) than anyone in program history and set the team's single-season rushing mark (1,657) as a senior, in addition to having 33 tackles, five QB sacks and a 41.9-yard punting average. (Pearson's single-season record was broken last fall by another UMD recruit, Reagan Ruffi).
But despite all of Pearson's rushing prowess, he was destined for defense.
"Even through high school, I liked delivering the hit more than receiving it," Pearson said. "I liked defense more, so it was alright giving it up. Do I miss it a little bit? Yeah, but I'm happy where I'm at."
After redshirting at UMD in 2016, Pearson missed the first two games of 2017 due to his ankle injury, but still managed to finish tied for seventh on the team with 29 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks.
"Athletically, he was ready to do this last season, but the injury set him back a few weeks," Wiese said. "Obviously, he's older now and there's more expectation on him for this season."
Pearson has packed on more than 20 pounds of muscle since high school and is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. He is so strong he doesn't even go by the pounds.
"My best lift is the squat, where I did a quarter ton," Pearson said of maxing 500 pounds this past summer and winter.
UMD loves players in Pearson's mold for the Bulldogs' 3-4 defense, to the point where en route to national titles in 2008 and 2010 opposing playoff coaches remarked about how the Bulldogs could keep producing so many big, strong and fast outside linebackers.
"We want athletes, and even in high school we knew Nate could develop at that position," Wiese said.
But Pearson was still a little raw and it would take time. He wasn't playing Bloomer anymore.
"Obviously there's a big skill difference going from a smaller high school to one of the top Division II schools in the nation," he said. "It was a pretty big jump, so there was definitely a lot to learn."
Pearson appears to have figured it out. He became more comfortable with the formations and his role in the defense. He said the two biggest developments were his improvement as a pass rusher and in coverage.
"That's why I'm where I'm at now," he said. "After I picked that up, I knew I was as good as I wanted to be, that I controlled that, but there is definitely a lot more work to put in."
NO. 16 Minnesota Duluth at St. Cloud State
What: NSIC North Division football game dubbed the "Battle for the Bone"
When: 6 p.m. today
Where: Husky Stadium (4,198 capacity, artificial turf) Records: UMD 2-0, St. Cloud 2-0
Forecast: Mostly cloudy with a high of 80 and 19 mph wind
TV: Midco Sports Network as part of its "NSIC Thursday Night Game of the Week"
Radio: KDKE 102.5 FM and dukefmduluth.com