Naperville North’s Jackson Kerstin was never asked to be an offensive lineman.
He began his football career as a running back before his coaches switched him to lineman in third grade because of his big size.
“It definitely is a position that only a few people would kind of take with open arms and be excited to be playing because there’s no glory behind it at all,” Kerstin said. “It takes a special person, for sure, to be able to play that position with a lot of grace and happiness.
“But after a few years, I just fell in love with it. I can’t imagine playing anything else.”
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Kerstin will play for a few more years. He has committed to continue his career at South Dakota State, the top-ranked team in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.
“Having the opportunity to play in college is a big deal, and going to a school like South Dakota State is even greater, so we’re super proud of him,” Naperville North coach Sean Drendel said. “What I think Jackson loved up there was the people and the head coach, just how they treat their players. It’s no wonder they are a top-ranked program.”
Kerstin had never been to the region until visiting South Dakota State last year, but the rural area was not a turnoff.
“Even being out there for the first time felt pretty good, it felt right,” he said. “There’s actually a lot of Chicago kids there, so that made me feel better about the place, knowing that I’d have people to talk to and who I could relate to easily.”
South Dakota State has qualified for the FCS playoffs in 11 consecutive seasons. The Jackrabbits (11-1) will host Holy Cross in a second-round game on Saturday.
The roster has seven players from the Chicago area, including three from Naperville. Neuqua Valley alum Mark Gronowski is the starting quarterback, and his backup is former Naperville North signal-caller Jon Bell. Former Neuqua Valley receiver Patrick Hoffmann is the other.
Kerstin said their presence will help his transition. But the program’s success was an even bigger attraction.
“Winning football games is a big thing that drew me there,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to a team that wasn’t going to give me an opportunity to play at the highest level and play in big games.”
Kerstin’s play at right tackle helped the Huskies reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. The DuPage Valley Conference offensive lineman of the year, he helped pave the way for an offense that averaged 32.1 points and 382 yards per game this fall.
“He’s physical,” Drendel said. “He can be dominating, and on top of that, he’s super athletic, so he’s got a lot of great characteristics. When we need to run, that’s where we would run. We were running some type of scheme that allowed him to get after someone and block someone.”
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Kerstin wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I always try to put my team in the best position,” he said. “I always want the ball to be run behind me.”
Drendel said Kerstin had his best performance against Naperville Central defensive end Maverick Ohle in the regular-season finale, which the Huskies won 31-3.
“That was probably my favorite matchup that we got to have this year,” Kerstin said. “Definitely fun to focus on the rivalry, so I was really excited to be able to go against another great player.”
South Dakota State will move Kerstin to guard, but he’s ready.
“I played guard my freshman year, so I know the position pretty well,” he said. “A big thing for me is just my athleticism. It gives me an advantage over guys, being able to move a little quicker or bend a little more. So I think that’s the kind of thing that sets me out from other players.”
Matt Le Cren is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.