Linebacker co-captains lead SDSU defense

Jakob King, Sports Reporter

For a defense to have the kind of success that South Dakota State has had this season, its two best linebackers need to have a good on-field relationship, but it certainly doesn’t hurt when they’re good friends off the field as well.

That’s the case with Christian Rozeboom and Logan Backhaus — the top two tacklers on the Jackrabbits’ eighth-ranked defense in the Football Championship Subdivision. Their playing relationship is what everyone sees, but according to their head coach, their friendship goes beyond the boundaries of the football field.

“I think they’re somewhat different personalities, but when they put ‘linebacker’ on their shirt, they become one heartbeat,” said head coach John Stiegelmeier. “They sit together in meetings in the back of the room, they make jokes, they eat their sunflower seeds, all that stuff. They’ve just bonded through all the hard work and all the blood, sweat and tears. Really, our whole linebacker group is like that, but those two guys especially.”

That bond started before they ever put on a Jackrabbit uniform.

The two linebackers took similar paths to SDSU, both playing their high school football in northwest Iowa. The pair even went head-to-head twice when Backhaus was a junior and Rozeboom was a senior.

When Backhaus took his official visit to SDSU, Rozeboom was his host.

“The past couple years I’ve gotten closer to (Rozeboom), just with his roommates being friends of mine. I was over at their house all the time just hanging out,” Backhaus said. “Our relationship definitely goes beyond the football field. That helps us on the field.”

Another similarity between the two: neither received much attention from colleges — a surprising fact when you consider the success they’ve had at one of the top programs in FCS. In Rozeboom’s case, SDSU was his only Division I offer.

It goes without saying that Rozeboom has likely made numerous programs rethink their decision to not recruit him. During the Nov. 9 contest against Illinois State, he became the all-time tackler in Jackrabbit history.

“Just proving people wrong has felt good,” Rozeboom said. “Not that I really cared about what other people said about me, but just proving people wrong and making my family, people from my hometown, my high school coaches who believed in me all along and the coaches here proud for taking a chance on me because I wasn’t very heavily recruited.”

Despite his success, he certainly hasn’t let it go to his head. Rozeboom attributes part of the success he’s had to the great players he’s been around during his five years at SDSU — especially Backhaus, his defensive co-captain.

“He’s a super smart kid on the field,” Rozeboom said of Backhaus. “We’ve helped each other out on the field, making checks together. Having conversations and having it not be one-sided. He knows what he’s doing just as well as anyone else on the field. He makes checks that maybe I don’t see and he picks up on. He’s really good at that kind of stuff.”

The versatile Backhaus has a high school basketball career in his background, and he’s been able to bring that athleticism with him to college football. He’s tallied four interceptions so far this season, which leads the team. Stiegelmeier says that Backhaus’s athleticism allows him to stay on the field in passing downs when most teams would substitute in a defensive back.

“Normally you substitute nickel package (five defensive backs instead of four) to cover receivers — we don’t,” Stiegelmeier said. “In nickel, we have our same personnel out there. He runs very well, he’s very good at his technique, he understands leverage. Sometimes you play outside because you’ve got help inside. Sometimes you don’t have help, so you have to know that. He’s just a very, very smart football player.”

Smart, hard-working football players —  leaders and dedicated students.

Those are traits that Stiegelmeier used to describe the linebacker duo, and those valuable traits led him to start both of them as redshirt freshmen — something both players were very proud of.

“Even if I wasn’t the most athletic or the best tackler, they were able to trust me because I wasn’t making simple mistakes during practice — I was doing everything right,” Backhaus said. “They just threw me in there, and I just took the position and ran with it. It meant a lot to have the coaches trust me and put me out there. It was obviously good to have Christian out there.”

That decision definitely has paid off.

Rozeboom has led the team in tackles each of his four years in the starting lineup, while Backhaus had been in the top five in the last two years while intercepting eight passes in his career.

Now the two defensive captains are preparing for a playoff run.

Backhaus warns anyone who doubts this team’s ability to make a run in the playoffs to be wary of counting them out so soon.

“If you’re a real Jackrabbit fan, you know how this team is,” Backhaus said. “We don’t really think about what outsiders think — we try to think about what we need to do every day to get 1-0 every day. Two years ago, we went 1-3 in our first MVFC games and came back and made it to the semi-finals. If you’re counting us out already, that’s the wrong move.”