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MISSOULA — When Mason Bennett signed with North Dakota in February 2015, he passed up an offer from North Dakota State, which had won its fourth straight FCS national championship less than two months earlier.

“It wasn’t too bad, honestly,” Bennett said of passing up NDSU. “I went to UND because it felt like the right place for me. I was actually recruited as an outside linebacker because I was a bit smaller. So I kind of liked the more rushing type that UND does.”

Bennett was moved to defensive line when he got to North Dakota and had to add weight while learning the system. Through three seasons of slowly increasing production, he remained a story of future potential.

Now at 6-foot-4, 257 pounds, Bennett is in the midst of a breakout season as the Montana Grizzlies visit Grand Forks, North Dakota, on Saturday. His 6.5 total sacks are tied for fourth most in the FCS, while his 1.3 sacks per game are tied for third in the nation.

“The last couple of seasons, I was extremely light at defensive end, so I feel putting this weight on almost gives me a new aspect of pass rushing and playing the run,” Bennett said. “I wouldn’t be able to bull rush before, so that’s kind of keeping the O-Line honest. I definitely use that to my advantage in the pass game.”

A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Bennett earned Third-Team All-Canadian honors as a high school senior when he tallied 16.5 sacks as a defensive end. The Canadian style of football required defensive linemen to be a yard off the line of scrimmage, so he had to be reminded to move up when he got to college.

After a redshirt year at North Dakota, Bennett had 2.5 sacks and 17 total tackles in 12 games as a backup defensive end. Last season, he played in 10 games as a backup, tallying 30 tackles and a team-high 8.5 tackles for loss.

In five games this year, Bennett is up to 21 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries in addition to his sacks. North Dakota defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt credits Bennett’s weight increase of 15-20 pounds while maintaining his speed as the major difference this season.

“That’s really helped him become a more physical player,” Schmidt said. “He’s always been a twitchy type of athlete. He’s got some quick twitch in him. He can now play inside if we need him to. He’s still athletic enough to play off the edge.”

Bennett’s stats are also aided by an increase in snaps played since he’s starting. He also credits his fellow defensive linemen with helping him rack up stats.

Schmidt, who still owns the school record for single-season sacks with 10, is quick to praise Bennett’s determined demeanor at practice.

“He’s a focused guy,” Schmidt said. “He has a really good work ethic at practice and really has a mentality and mindset that he’s out here trying to get better and understand his position. There’s a lot of technique that goes into it and he has a lot of things to work on yet.”

The Griz are allowing 1.67 sacks per game, tied for 55th in the country out of 124 teams, and will be starting a new offensive line combination this week. If Bennett can set up camp in the backfield, it could help tilt the outcome in North Dakota’s favor.

“Last year, they were a pretty-experienced O-Line. I know they only returned one or two guys, so we’re looking forward to that,” Bennett said. “We haven’t won since I’ve been here, so we’re kind of using that to our advantage.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at Frank.Gogola@406mtsports.com.

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