CHEYENNE – Cade Pugh isn’t exaggerating when he says he is still learning to play running back.

The Cheyenne East junior didn’t play tackle football until seventh grade. That fact may surprise those who know his father, Tracy Pugh, has coached football for nearly three decades, including a five-year stint as head coach at Cheyenne South.

The elder Pugh firmly believes football teaches young people valuable lessons. But he didn’t want Cade and his older brother, Cael, a senior nose tackle, to hang up their cleats before they had the opportunity to learn those lessons.

“I was afraid they might give up the sport by the time they got to junior high if they started playing tackle football earlier than that,” said Tracy Pugh, who is now an assistant on East’s staff. “Some little guys might get knocked on their butts 30 or 40 times every Saturday at that youth level.

“That can be really discouraging and lead them to quit. I didn’t want my boys to quit before they had a chance to learn the valuable lessons football teaches.”

Cade Pugh has steadily improved during his first season as East’s starting running back. He averages 56.6 yards per game, and has two 100-yard games to his credit entering the Class 4A state championship game.

Pugh and the Thunderbirds (10-1) host Thunder Basin (9-2) at 1 p.m. today at Okie Blanchard Stadium.

Pugh played wide receiver as a seventh grader, and touched the ball five times. Three of those were fly sweeps, where he went in motion before the snap, took a handoff from the quarterback and tried to beat the defense to the outside. He moved to running back in eighth grade.

Even though he is still learning the position, Pugh has given opposing defenses something to worry about other than the legs and right arm of senior quarterback Graedyn Buell. He has done that by putting less pressure on himself, East coach Chad Goff said.

“(Pugh) has truly gotten better at understanding that everything doesn’t need to be a cut for a touchdown,” Goff said. “It can be a cut for positive yards, or lowering your shoulder to get positive yards. He doesn’t have to look to break every carry for 80 yards; he just has to find a way to get positive yards and see what happens after that.

“He has really done a great job of that. A lot of his yards are hard-earned yards. He gets a lot of yards after contact.”

That wasn’t the case earlier this season, Pugh said.

“You could see on film from our first game of the season that I was kind of shying away from contact, and I wasn’t exploding through holes,” the 5-foot-9, 171-pounder said. “I wasn’t running very hard, and I wasn’t being very tough.”

That changed Sept. 11 against Campbell County. Pugh rushed for 107 yards on 19 carries and found the end zone for the first time.

“That’s when things really opened up, and I felt like I belonged,” he said. “I am doing a good job at driving through contact. I’m not the fastest straight-out runner we have, but I feel like I do a good job of exploding through contact and keeping my feet moving.”

Pugh also rushed for 106 yards and two scores during the T-Birds’ Oct. 2 win over South. He now has 623 rushing yards and six touchdowns to his name.

As important as it has been for Pugh to take some of the rushing load off Buell’s shoulders, his yardage might not even be his most valuable contribution to East.

“He has to be one of the best blocking running backs we’ve ever had,” said Goff, who is in his 15th season as East’s head coach. “He does a good job of helping us get the edge on our sprint outs, he does a good job of stepping up in the pocket and helping the offensive line. His blocking has been really good.”

The T-Birds’ coaches aren’t the only ones who have noticed Pugh’s prowess as a blocker.

“We throw the ball more than most teams in the state, so it’s important to have everyone blocking well,” senior center Dakota Heckman said. “(Pugh) does a great job of seeing blitzes coming, and picking guys up. Sometimes, I’ll call things out and tell him to watch for something.

“He is always alert and ready for it. He is such a good blocker.”

Jeremiah Johnke is the WyoSports editor. He can be reached at jjohnke@wyosports.net or 307-633-3137. Follow him on Twitter at @jjohnke.

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