FARGO, N.D. -- From the day he signed with North Dakota State, Lance Dunn Jr. realized any opportunity to make a name for himself on the football field would have to be earned.
The Waterloo, Iowa, native has worked to carve out a role within a crowded Bison backfield, and Saturday he will be part of a rushing attack that ranks 12th in the FCS as North Dakota State returns to Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, to face Jacksonville State for a shot at a fifth consecutive national championship.
The redshirt freshman joins true freshman Bruce Anderson and versatile junior Chase Morlock as complementary options to 1,129-yard rusher King Frazier. Dunn has rushed for 457 yards (5.3 per carry), and if it weren't for an untimely injury, he would have had a chance for more.
Following a Week 4 game against South Dakota State, NDSU offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tim Polasek was ready to hand Dunn an increased workload. Frazier and Anderson had struggled with ball security, while Dunn was coming off a performance in which he reached 50 yards on 10 carries.
"We were ready to move forward with him as our 1B option and touching the ball 15-plus times," Polasek recalls.
Adding to the anticipation, Dunn's breakout opportunity was to come against his hometown neighbor, Northern Iowa.
It wasn't meant to be.
"That Monday at practice, unfortunately, I didn't stretch good enough and I pulled my hamstring a little bit," Dunn said. "I was really upset, but I did whatever I could just to get back. It took me a few weeks."
During the time it took Dunn to fully recover, Frazier reasserted himself as a strong feature back and Anderson continued to progress.
Dunn is now back in the mix, serving as a blocker for Anderson on special teams and receiving enough touches on offense to make an impact. His best game to date came in NDSU's regular-season finale -- an eight-carry, 125-yard effort against Missouri State that included a 60-yard touchdown run.
During the playoffs, Dunn had nine touches for 62 yards against Montana, and after seeing limited touches against Northern Iowa, he tallied 10 carries for 54 yards against Richmond.
"Everything I could do to get my carries back, I did," Dunn said. "Now every time I get the ball, I just try to make the best of it."
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Finding a way to feed a deep backfield has been both a challenge and luxury for Polasek. NDSU has showcased a package in which three running backs are together on the field for five to 15 snaps a game.
The coordinator says he'd like to get Dunn around 10 carries a game and have his running back corps total at least 40 to help take pressure off back-up turned starting quarterback Easton Stick.
Polasek feels Dunn's pass protection needs improvement for him to be an every-down back, but has been impressed with his ability in the flat and his potential to become a valuable weapon on screen plays.
"He's explosive," Polasek said of Dunn. "The thing that has been impressive with his touches is that he doesn't go down on first contact. I wouldn't say that he's an overly violent runner, but he's really pretty powerful in the lower body and definitely has a burst that we would like all of our backs to have. He's doing a great job."
Dunn is an even-keeled worker who doesn't reveal too much emotion; Yet, Polasek feels Dunn's competitive side has come to light as this season has progressed. The coach also points out the Waterloo native has become more focused in the weight room and is excelling in the classroom.
The opportunity to compete for a national title is part of what Dunn signed up for when he chose North Dakota State over three other FCS offers.
"I knew that North Dakota State is a winning program and I wanted to be a part of something special where I could play in big games," Dunn said. "The environment here is unbelievable."
Dunn, who set his high school's single-game record for all-purpose yards at 336 and ran on a state championship 4x100-meter relay team, credits his high school coaches and his father for helping him reach this point. Lance Dunn Sr. was a former football player at Mankato State.
"My dad's been my biggest role-model ever since I was a kid," Dunn Jr. said. "He never sugarcoats anything with me. He's straight up, and that's what I love about him. He's motivated me in the weight room and if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am right now."
With school out for the semester, Dunn has football on the top of his mind. He's eager to replace Fargo's frigid winter weather with the sun in Frisco, Texas.
"It's going to be an awesome experience," Dunn said. "Going there last year and watching the guys play in the stands (as a redshirt), it really made me want to be out there on the field with them. I knew if we worked hard this year that we could get there again.
"Now, I'm getting the opportunity to go out there and play, so I'm going to make the best of it and just have fun."
This article was written by Nick Petaros from Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.