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UND senior tight end Luke Fiedler a key to the Hawks’ strong run game

GRAND FORKS — Many University of North Dakota football fans will recognize Saturday, Nov. 10, as probably the last time to see four-year star running backs John Santiago and Brady Oliveira play for the Fighting Hawks in Grand Forks.

It’s justifiable. Santiago and Oliveira will go down as one of the program’s all-time best tandems. They sit in the Top 10 of UND’s record books in yards and touchdowns.

The Alerus Center faithful, however, should take an additional moment when the Hawks (5-4 overall) host Portland State (4-5) at 2 p.m. to recognize another senior who has been a driving force behind that UND run game.

Senior tight end Luke Fiedler, a 6-foot-5, 262-pound bulldozer, is a big reason the Fighting Hawks have the No. 11 rushing attack in the FCS.

“He’s been physical on a consistent basis,” UND offensive coordinator Paul Rudolph said. “He’s done it pretty consistent for four years.”

This year, UND’s run game averages 252.9 yards per game -- despite three-time All-American Santiago missing the past three games with an injury.

The Hawks rank second in run offense in the Big Sky Conference, behind only triple-option Cal Poly.

All three of UND’s primary backs -- Santiago, Oliveira and James Johannesson -- average more than 6 yards per carry.

“What really helps is it allows those guys to get to the edge better,” Rudolph said. “When he neutralizes the edge, when backs bounce stuff, it’s so different when he’s controlling there.”

When UND recruited Fiedler, a Florida native, the Hawks’ coaching staff didn’t really know they were getting a dominant run blocker.

From a distance, Fiedler wasn’t the typical mold of a tough guy on a physical team in the Upper Midwest. He stands out as an Orlando native with long, flowing blonde hair.

“Quite frankly, it was the opposite,” Rudolph said. “He came out of a spread team in high school. The one concern we had -- because he caught it well -- was we wondered how well he’d do with his hand in the ground play after play.

“He quickly showed that fall that he wasn’t afraid of contact.”

North Dakota wasn’t foreign land, though. Fiedler, who’s known for having a snake and a lizard as pets, has extended family in North Dakota and Minnesota and was born in Edina. His dad, Barry, graduated from UND.

The Hawks haven’t featured Fiedler significantly in the passing game in his career as he has 25 catches for 214 yards and three touchdowns.

But Fiedler’s impact on the offense is shown on plenty of highlights for Santiago, Oliveira and Johannesson.

As UND honors 16 seniors on Senior Day against Portland State, the Hawks’ coaches know Fiedler will be a challenge to replace.

“Without question,” Rudolph said. “A guy who can put his hand in the ground and stayed a true physical presence … we have a couple of guys maybe more athletic than him but I don’t know if we have anyone as physical and powerful.”

Portland State at UND

When: Saturday, 2 p.m.

Where: Alerus Center

TV: MidcoSN2

Records: Portland State 4-5; UND 5-4

Of note: UND will honor 16 seniors before Saturday’s kickoff