GRAND FORKS — Just two years ago, partly due to a string of injuries, the University of North Dakota's inside linebackers were the soft spot in the defense.
As a result, UND finished 2017 with a 3-8 record, giving up an uncharacteristic 187.9 rushing yards per game.
As the Fighting Hawks prepare for the 2019 season opener against Drake at 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, at the Alerus Center, UND's inside linebackers have gone from weak link to major strength.
"We're way ahead of where we were last year as far as play-calling and checks, dealing with motion and finding strengths," said UND senior inside linebacker Tyron Vrede. "(Our experience) is going to be huge for us this year."
That could be important Week 1 against a Drake team that has indicated this offseason it's changing to an offense revolving around a fullback and tight ends. Drake is also expected to start a true freshman at quarterback -- further proof UND's inside linebackers might see extra action in the run game.
UND's starters inside against the Bulldogs will be senior Donnell Rodgers and sophomore Noah Larson — two players who were expected to be impact players in 2017 but were injured early in the year.
The return of Larson and Rodgers in 2018 helped the Hawks' run defense snap back to form. UND gave up more than 50 fewer rushing yards per game in 2018 than 2017.
Rodgers, a 6-foot-1, 238-pound Woodbury, Minn., native, led the Hawks in tackles last season with 72, including 8.0 for loss and two sacks. Larson, a 6-2, 238-pound Baraboo, Wis., native, was second on the team in tackles with 64, which included 5.0 for loss and 2.0 sacks.
Providing a breather for Larson and Rodgers this year will be experienced backups Vrede and Cam Hunt.
"Having those four back really helps," UND inside linebackers coach Carl Reinholz said. "Eight of the nine guys in our room played snaps in some capacity last year and that's nice to have."
Vrede had 23 tackles, 6.0 for loss and 2.0 sacks last year. A native of the Netherlands, Vrede was labeled a senior a year ago but was awarded an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA in the spring.
"I'm not sure how old he is but just having him around elevates our maturity," Reinholz said. "We're all pretty fired up to get him back. He's physical and smart and can make up for some deficiencies by always being in the right spot."
Behind those top four inside linebackers, UND has also developed some expected special teams contributors and solid depth talent in Hayden Reynolds, Caden White, Jake Rastas and Jake Geier.