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College football: UMD's defense tackles youth issue

Nick Goeser's travels as a Minnesota Duluth assistant coach took him across Wisconsin but never to a swimming pool until he met defensive line prospect Chris Vandervest.

Vandervest was an excellent swimmer for Ashwaubenon High School near Green Bay, but he was perhaps an even better football player.

"Chris must have looked pretty big coming down that pool," UMD coach Bob Nielson said, laughing.

Now three years later, the 6-foot-1, 265-pound Vandervest anchors a UMD defensive line that is young but promising. The position was a question mark going into the season, and it didn't get any better after junior Joe Akey was lost to a knee injury in the season opener. Akey was the only returning starter to a group that lost All-American nose tackle Jim Kunz to graduation.

"Once we lost Joe Akey, we knew that the young guys on the defensive line were going to have to come along, and we certainly feel like they've made some progress," Nielson said. "What's exciting is how much better we think that group can get."

Sophomores Jordan Bauman, Wade Sebold and Matt Wicklund have filled in admirably at defensive end, while Vandervest has taken over for Kunz, who was the proverbial run stuffer -- very strong and hard to move.

The emergence of former Duluth East standout Buma Foncham at nose tackle has allowed UMD to also play Vandervest more at defensive end to take advantage of his quickness and athleticism.

"At nose tackle it's fun to get right in there and mix it up, while defensive end allows you to be on the edge and pass rush more, but I don't really have a preference," Vandervest said. "So long as we make the play, that's all that matters to me."

UMD's 3-4 defense made a lot of plays last week in the Bulldogs' 24-6 victory at Winona State.

UMD held a Warriors team that had been averaging nearly 400 yards per game to 220, including 23 carries for 69 yards. The Bulldogs will face another test Saturday at Mary, a team that averages 397.3 yards per game and gave conference leader Wayne State a serious challenge last week.

"You can make some big plays as a defensive lineman in our system, but you're not necessarily going to be the guy leading the tackle chart every week," Nielson said. "You're typically going to tie up the blockers to let the linebackers and safeties make plays, and our guys understand that."

Vandervest grew up only a couple blocks from Lambeau Field and is a lifelong Packers fan. He started competitive swimming when he was eight.

Vandervest would bulk up for football in the fall and then trim to about 220 for swimming in the winter. He was a four-time state swim meet participant, often finishing in the top three as an individual, and he helped the Jaguars win a state title in the 200-yard freestyle relay his senior year. He also competed with his YMCA team.

After backing up Matt Haas last year at defensive end, Vandervest is enjoying being on the field on a regular basis this year. He has 16 tackles and two sacks this season.

"I think just about anyone who has ever played football wants to be on the field any way they can," Vandervest said. "I did all I could in a supporting role last year, and now I think I've proven myself."