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Time to shine: Ward, Krolikowski slated to start for SDSU

Canistota graduate and South Dakota State University defensive lineman Xavier Ward (67) celebrates a tackle for loss with his teammates against Illinois State on Nov. 11, 2017 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

BROOKINGS—Xavier Ward's smile and Krockett Krolikowski's happy go-lucky attitude is how South Dakota State University head football coach John Stiegelmeier describes his starting defensive tackles off the field.

On the field, they provide a daunting duo as part of a deep defensive line group, with both standing six-feet, two inches, and Krolikowski coming in at 285 pounds and Ward at 280. The on-the-field similarities don't stop there though, even if Ward played sparingly last season and Krolikowski redshirted.

Ward, a former Canistota standout, came in as a reserve in all 14 games last season and quickly became a consistent presence in the opponent's backfield. He finished with 10 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack.

"For his size, for his position, he has great feet," Stiegelmeier said. "He maybe doesn't run a 40-yard dash in 4.9, but within a three-yard area, he's got really good feet and gets off the ball really well."

Winner native Krolikowski didn't see the field, but he traveled with the team as he was "one injury away" from playing, according to Stiegelmeier. His freshman campaign likely would have been different if the NCAA's new redshirt rule, which allows a player to see playing time in up to four games without blowing their redshirt, was implemented last year.

It wasn't, but looking back, Krolikowski feels fortunate he kept his four years of eligibility instead of playing a couple of downs as a true freshman.

"I got to sit back and learn from the older guys, from (former SDSU defensive tackle) Kellen Soulek especially," Krolikowski said. "Then come around spring ball, I was ready to go by then. I don't think I came in quite ready. I was too fat. I slimmed down a little bit and got in better shape."

Keeping the weight off, learning the playbook and getting comfortable with the speed of college football all helped Krolikowski be successful and lighter on his feet during this year's spring camp. That said, he's not the only Jackrabbit to have dealt with weight issues at SDSU.

"I will admit that I was a little overweight (coming into spring camp), and that (kept) me from stuff, but I'm back down to the weight I need to be, and I think I had a really good spring ball," Ward said.

Weight issues won't keep Ward or Krolikowski off the field this year as both are listed as starters. Their rise is also partly due to their footwork and football IQ. Stiegelmeier referred to Krolikowski as a "technician" and that Ward earned the starting spot by "making plays and lack of mental errors."

"A lot of their position is mastering the technique, so it isn't as much learning mentally but mastering it physically," Stiegelmeier said. "... I think (Krolikowski) understands his position as well as anybody at his age."

The speed of the game slowing down for both players will help, as well as what Soulek taught them last year.

"He's just a good guy, good role model and also he's just a really big guy, so he knows he can work the O-linemen," said Ward, who has known him his entire life. "He taught me be physical and always play fast. If I ever had any question like what stunt or play I needed to run, he knew the answer."

If both players maintain their starting roles, they'll make their first start against FBS-foe Iowa State on Sept. 1 in Ames, Iowa. Ward cracked his famous big smile when asked about playing Iowa State after SDSU didn't schedule an FBS opponent last year, while Krolikowski is simply excited to hit somebody new.

"After sitting out for a year, you're definitely ready to play some actual football," Krolikowski said. "You get sick of practicing against the same guys everyday and I'm really excited to go play a team."