DENVER — The plan was simple, always simple. Derrek Tuszka would pursue an NFL dream at North Dakota State, along the way inspired by other alums drafted and succeeding at the sport's highest level.
Everything has gone right -- the Bison have won eight FCS national championships in nine years, and Tuszka proved a critical figure in titles in his final seasons -- leaving the edge rusher poised to make a strong push for a roster spot next month.
The Broncos have a history of unearthing gems in the late rounds. Tuszka, taken with the 254th overall pick in the seventh round, aims to add to that list during training camp with his effort and versatility.
"I would say I am relentless. I have a high motor and I am just very passionate about the game," Tuskza told Denver7 when asked to describe his game. "I am not taking any plays off. If a play is going away from someone, they might take it off. I am always trying to protect what I put on film."
Watch the highlights and Tuszka jumps off the screen. He pursues with a zeal that is uncommon, something not lost on the Broncos, who chose Tuszka rather than risk losing him to another team as a free agent.
"Well, you won the lottery," coach Vic Fangio told Tuszka on his draft call when he was selected.
General manager John Elway, cognizant of the cultural fabric at North Dakota State, asked Tuszka to bring some of "those winning ways" with him. For Tuszka, the landing spot offered an ideal fit. He began training at Landow Performance, located a few miles from the Broncos headquarters, for the NFL combine. Now, he isn't going anywhere.
"You know it was a huge relief just knowing that I was going back to place that I was really familiar with and starting to fall in love with. It felt so good to get that call," Tuszka said last week after explaining that he will continue working out in Denver over the next month. "I couldn’t be more excited."
If there was any doubt of Tuskza's NFL candidacy, they dissolved in his senior season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has ample size for an outside linebacker, and dominated for the Bison, posting 19 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks in 2019.
However, how would his athleticism grade against Division I athletes at his position? Very well, thank you.
At the combine, Tuszka ran a 4.79 40-yard dash, ranked first in the three-cone drill, and fifth in the vertical jump at 33.5 inches.
This cannot be dismissed when considering Tuszka's path to the roster. He projects as a backup, meaning he will have to find a niche on special teams. This type of attitude was fostered in a college program that centered more on "we than me."
"When you have a winning culture and winning tradition, everybody is out to get you, the target is on your back. If you let one day get past you in your preparation, you will get a loss really quickly. There was really an attention to detail and the accountability within the program and with the players," Tuszka said. "I will definitely have a chance to make my name on special teams. I know people say this is a job, but I am loving what I am doing so much it doesn't even feel like it."
For Tuskza, like all the rookies, this has been an upside down offseason. Typically, at this point in their development, rookies would have a feel for where they sat on the depth chart after multiple weeks of OTAs. Field reps have been replaced by Zoom meetings. The mental side of the game has never been more important for rookies trying to earn one of the last roster spots.
"It’s a lot of playbook and studying. You are just trying to learn from other people's mistakes and their successes on film," Tuszka said. "Once preseason comes, however it looks (in terms of practices and games), it's got to be full speed, especially given the time we have had to study. Everything is going to be amped up. I think the Broncos have done a great job of getting us ready. And you know what they say, 'Control what you can control and you don't have to worry.'"