One of Gage Stenger’s many strength is his football IQ
Story by Shane G. Gilster • Photos by Jeff Bundy
For most of this past high school season, Millard South was the best football team in the state. The Patriots were 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class A. Then they suffered a stunning loss in the first round of the playoffs, sullying, among other things, the season accomplishments of do-it-all team leader Gage Stenger.
Stenger burst onto the scene his senior year as a two-way starter at quarterback and defensive back. He threw for almost 1,400 yards with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions. He set the Class A state record with six touchdown passes in the playoff game loss. To complement his passing, Stenger ran the ball for more than 500 yards and 11 scores.
It was the kind of season that earns a scholarship to Nebraska. Stenger signed with the Huskers on Dec. 15.
“He’s one of the best ever in all of my 36 years coaching at Millard South,” said coach Andy Means, himself a Husker defensive back from 1978 to 1980. “I would compare him to Bronson Marsh, who was our quarterback back in 2008, 2009. He is one of those kids who you play all over the field and is tremendous.”
Means also compares Stenger to a coach on the field, pointing to a high football IQ that allows him to know what everyone else on defense is supposed to be doing.
“He was the unquestioned leader of this team,” Means said. “He would get on players and they didn’t get mad at him because they respected him so much because of his knowledge and the way he played the game.”
Nebraska recruited Stenger as an athlete, waiting until he steps on campus to see which position fits him best.
“Coach Frost said that I would have an opportunity to work out as a quarterback to see if I could play that position at Nebraska,” Stenger said. “If not, I would go back to the defensive side of the ball. But I think I could run an offense at Nebraska. One of my best aspects to my game is being able to throw on the run.”
Besides Means, Stenger credits some other good teachers — one-time NU recruit Marsh of Marsh Elite Performance, who tutors him over the winters, and Millard South QB coach and former Husker quarterback Ryker Fyfe.
One scenario is for Stenger to become a JoJo Domann-type hybrid linebacker who could move around on defense. Domann, who was a second-team All-American this past year for the Huskers, elected not to return to NU, opening an opportunity for Stenger in 2022.
“Gage is 6-2, 200, but could easily be 225 at Nebraska,” Means said. “I can see him being an outside linebacker, hybrid type, who can easily cover receivers and come up to defend the run. JoJo Domann is who Nebraska says Gage reminds them of, and I agree. He’ll be a little bit bigger than JoJo but will make plays all over the field just like he did.”
Even though Stenger is an athletic specimen with a 38-inch vertical and 4.55 speed, colleges weren’t knocking down his door. Perhaps that’s because high-profile recruits like Kaden Helms and Micah Riley-Ducker of Bellevue West and Devon Jackson of Omaha Burke had already grabbed lots of attention in the Omaha Metro. Means felt Stenger was overlooked.
“They got more press early and some of them played when they were younger and got more exposure earlier than Gage,” he said.
Over the summer, Nebraska told Stenger that scholarships were at a premium, knowing it would be signing a small class in 2022. Therefore, Stenger felt that it was best for him to commit to Kansas State, a school with a coaching staff he particularly enjoyed that came from a winning program at North Dakota State.
But by the middle of the season, Stenger was making it impossible for other schools not to take notice, including Nebraska. Ironically, it was the game against Bellevue West, a team with a host of high-level prospects, when Stenger grabbed the spotlight.
He was 11-of-14 through the air for 220 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for 199 yards on 19 carries and two touchdowns.
“Against Bellevue West he was running towards the sideline and we were all yelling for him to get out of bounds because he got the first down,” Means said. “But he turned it upfield and lowered his shoulder into a Bellevue West player. I asked him why he didn’t get out of bounds and he said, ‘I got to show them how tough I am.'”
After that game, Means got a call from NU linebackers coach Barrett Ruud, who said Nebraska was seriously looking at Stenger and wanted to see if he would be interested even though he was committed to Kansas State. Means told Ruud it wouldn’t hurt to give Stenger a call.
“Coach Ruud called me and apologized for not offering me in the summer, which meant a lot to me,” Stenger said. “He then offered me and said he could really see me fit in their system. Getting an opportunity to play at my dream school meant a lot to me, so my family and I talked about it and committed about two weeks later.”
Besides Nebraska and Kansas State, Stenger, who was rated as the fifth-best prospect in Nebraska, had offers from Wyoming, Northern Illinois, South Dakota State, Illinois State and North Dakota. But according to Means, there could have been many more schools in the mix.
“Gage made his commitment to Kansas State pretty early and that may have scared some colleges off,” Means said.
Plus, having summer camps canceled by the pandemic hurt him.
“Colleges didn’t get to see him in person,” Means said. “Schools wanted to wait to see him play his senior year and then realized he was something special, but it was too late because Nebraska offered.”
After Stenger signed his letter of intent, Nebraska coach Scott Frost had nothing but good things to say about keeping one of the state’s best players home.
“Gage is awesome,” Frost said. “His team was probably throughout the course of the year one of the best in the state, and he was arguably one of the best players in the state. If there is a player like that in Nebraska, we want him here. He is another great kid from a great family. He is a high-character guy. I am not sure where Gage will end up playing yet but I have a lot of confidence in him as an athlete that wherever he ends up he is going to make a difference on our football team.”