PINE BLUFFS – In the aftermath of a crushing 68-13 loss to Big Horn in the Class 1A semifinals last fall, Will Gray took some time to absorb the devastating blow he and his team were dealt.
Pine Bluffs was one win away from playing for its third straight state championship, but it was never given the chance. It was instead ushered into the long, dark off-season sooner than expected.
After Gray and his coaching staff took some time off to regroup and recharge, the Pine Bluffs coach began scribbling names down and organizing them based on depth. His roster for the 2019 season began taking shape, potential starters were marked down, positions in question and areas of concern highlighted.
One stood out the most: The offensive line.
The graduation of Hunter Jeffres, Brad Schmidl and James Merryfield left a sizable hole in the Hornets’ front five. Not only were there three vacancies up front, but Gray knew his team needed to be able to run the ball at a more consistent and successful rate than a year ago. So the coach approached two of his most trusted players over the winter – Brian Steger and Kyle Thurin – and told them they might need to change positions to fill the needs of the team. Nothing was permanent, not with the season more than six months away.
“We just kind of flirted with it,” Gray recalled. “As a small school, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Gray also told Steger and Thurin that if any move-ins arrived, they could go back to their regular positions of tailback and tight end.
The calendar flipped to May. No move-ins. The idea of moving two of his key players to different positions became a reality for Gray.
As spring turned to summer, Steger and Thurin officially made the switch to offensive line – Steger at left tackle, and Thurin at right guard.
“I’d like to say I gave them a choice, but I didn’t,” Gray said. “I just said, ‘You know what, fellas? We need you to play up front. And that might hurt your feelings, but at some point we can’t be worried about feelings, and we’ve got to be worried about putting a good product on the field and making sure everywhere else is solid once we solidify up front.’”
A ruthless running game is something Gray covets, especially late in the season. Pine Bluffs rushed for more than 100 yards seven times and ran for more than 200 yards four times last season, in which it finished 6-4. Yet in that 1A semifinal loss to Big Horn, Pine Bluffs registered just 91 rushing yards on 30 attempts.
“A year ago, we struggled running the ball against good teams,” Gray said. “For us to be successful against the Big Horns, the Uptons, we’ve got to be able to run the ball late in the season, and that’s something we’re working on every day, whether it’s run fits or being more physical or hitting the right seam or the right angles. That’s what we’ve been working on every day is just being able to run the ball against good teams.”
That’s where Steger and Thurin come in.
Last season, Steger was second on the team in rushing with 517 yards and tied Isaiah Montanes for the team lead with six rushing touchdowns. Steger averaged more than 51 yards per game and four yards per carry last fall.
“It felt like a big step up, just to do whatever I need to do for the team,” he said of the move.
At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Steger, who has been a running back for the last three years, brings a lot of size to the offensive line, which has made the transition easier for the Pine Bluffs standout.
“I have an advantage of being quicker than most linemen from being a running back,” he added. “So, I think it’s easier for me to get to my place I need to be and get that block.”
Steger spent the off-season adding more muscle to his frame, and also focused on getting faster, particularly first-step explosion off the line of the scrimmage. He power cleans 270 pounds, benches 300, squats 415 and dead lifts 430. He improved his 40-yard dash time to 4.84 seconds.
“Brian had a really good winter and summer,” Gray said. “He dropped his 40 time by, like, I think three-tenths (of a second), and he’s running in the high 4.7s. And for 6-2, 220, that’s pretty good.”
Steger is growing more and more confident with his new position. So much so that he made a bet with offensive line coach Nick Yelton.
“If I get five pancakes a game, he’ll do something, anything I want,” Steger said with a smile. “So, that’s a goal I’m reaching (toward). Five pancakes a game, that would be pretty nice.”
Having spent most of his career as a tight end, Thurin was able to make a smooth transition to right guard. The blocking schemes between the offensive line and the responsibilities of the tight ends come easy for Thurin, who snagged three catches for 67 yards last season.
“I wish my hands were better, because I probably still could be at tight end, but the coaches needed people to step up,” Thurin said. “I chose to step up and play guard. “
Thurin has spent extra time so far during fall camp focusing on recognizing various defensive fronts. He’s still getting a feel for when defenses switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 4-2 look.
“Just the way the defense lines up in the gaps on one play that we have, ‘Power,’ which is our ‘Ice’ we call it now, (and) the way we block that and fold that is one spot that I need to keep excelling at,” he said.
Steger and Thurin will work alongside freshman center Diego Paniagua. To make things easier for the three first-year starters on the offensive line, Gray switched up some of his terminology. The payoff, Gray said, will be having more time to focus on practice and getting better.
“We’re pretty young, and so we just needed something they could pick up quick,” the coach said. “The guys up front, something they could pick up quick and really start gelling through camp. Instead of teaching and learning, now they can start gelling and playing together.
“It’s been the hardest on me. I’ve called things the same way since I was in college. I screw things up every day in practice. I make sure I carry a pen, or I steal one from Coach, and have to scribble things out that I messed up and have to go back to the computer that night and fix it. But we like where we’re at so far.”
So far so good for Steger and Thurin, who begin the season Friday when Pine Bluffs travels to Yuma, Colorado, for a 7 p.m. kickoff. An added benefit to the position switch? The two seniors get to play alongside one another during their final season.
“Him going from running back to lineman and me going from tight end to just staying on the line is pretty cool because me and him both haven’t been on the line exactly,” Thurin said. “I mean, I’ve had a spot where it’s kind of like the line, but I still go out for passes. But now it’s just on the line, and we can both improve on that and learn that position together.
“I have a feeling if we have enough leadership to our younger (guys), nothing is not achievable. So I believe we can achieve our goals and get where we need to go if we have correct leadership.”