At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, Gage Stenger provided sure tackling and diversity at the safety position for the Millard South Patriots’ defense in 2020.
Stenger ranked third in tackles with 51 and had one interception for head coach Andy Means’ team that went 8-2 with an appearance in the Class A state semifinals.
Stenger would be one of the safeties in a two-high look. At times in third-and-long situations, he’d slide down to linebacker depth and play the boundary, or short side of the field. Other times, he’d stay back and play center field to utilize his speed and ball-hawking skills.
“He’s smart and he’s aggressive,” Means said of Stenger. “On third-and-longs, he’s got such great hands that we’ll have him be back and looking for passes. In running situations, usually our safeties will try to run the alley, and our corners or outside linebackers will contain and the safety will come inside-out and usually be the filler.
“But in passing situations, we want him back there because he’s a great receiver and has just a great sense for the ball and what’s going on. He anticipates things.”
Stenger — who benches 235 pounds, squats 440, hang cleans 310 and has a 38-inch vertical jump — isn’t only a dynamic athlete in the secondary. He was able to make plays with the ball in his hands offensively, too, and at multiple positions.
As a junior last fall playing receiver and quarterback, he was second in total yards with 793. Rotating at times with Air Force commit TJ Urban at quarterback, Stenger completed 65 percent of his passes (29 of 44) with two touchdowns. He also caught 21 passes for 215 yards and three scores while rushing for 161 yards and one touchdown.
Stenger began the 2020 season solely as a receiver in Millard South’s run-heavy spread attack. As the year went on, though, he started getting more reps — first at practices, then in games. It was a move meant to make defenses have to gameplan for an extra wrinkle when Stenger took snaps instead of Urban.
“He’s got the ability to throw on the run and at different arm angles,” Means said.
Stenger remembers his first-ever series at quarterback. It wasn’t what you’d call an ideal situation — it began at his own 2-yard line.
“I was like, ‘I just want to get a few positive plays here,’” Stenger said.
Stenger eventually got out of the shadow of his own end zone and busted loose for a long touchdown run.
“That just got my confidence going the rest of the year,” he said.
With Urban graduated, Stenger now has the keys to the offense on top of his defensive responsibilities. Means has no doubt that he can handle the extra load.
“He’s going to be the quarterback on offense and the quarterback on defense,” Means said. “He’s going to be the guy to tell others, ‘here, go here, do this,’ — that kind of deal, which is indispensable as a coach because there are a lot of kids who don’t do that, but he does.”
Stenger is a a talented athlete with the ball, but it’s the defensive side where his future at the next level may be.
“Most schools I’ve talked to have talked to me about playing a rover position, like a linebacker who can also drop into coverage,” he said.
Stenger owns a scholarship offer from South Dakota State University, and he was in Brookings for the Jackrabbits’ FCS semifinal game against Delaware, one which the Jacks won 33-3.
“It helps when the team wins by 30 the first time you watch them play in person. They looked really good,” he said.
Stenger added that the player the SDSU coaching staff said he could project to in the future is Logan Backhaus, the Jacks’ rangy 6-foot-4, 205-pound outside linebacker who was second on the team in tackles with 72 and first in tackles for loss with 9.5.
Like Backhaus, Stenger isn’t afraid of contact. In fact, he craves collisions.
The love for hitting goes back to the football fields during second grade, where Stenger was actually on the wrong end of a run-in with Millard West’s James Conway, who is headed to Fordham to play football.
“My dad was my coach, and James Conway from Millard West ran me over,” Stenger said with a laugh. “But I got up, turned to my dad and was like, ‘Dad, dad, did you see that? I killed that kid.’ But I was the one who got absolutely destroyed. Ever since then I just loved to hit people.”
South Dakota State isn’t the only school interested in Stenger. He’s been talking with Nebraska’s director of player personnel, Sean Dillon, quite often. Recruiters from Wyoming, North Dakota State, Northern Illinois, North Dakota, Northern Iowa, South Dakota and Dartmouth have been in his ear, too.
To field calls from places like Nebraska is a good feeling for the Millard South senior-to-be.
“It’s awesome, a dream come true,” Stenger said. “I’ve always wanted to play football.”
Like many kids across the country, Stenger is gearing up for a busy June. He’ll be at the Lindenwood camp in St. Charles, Mo., on June 5. He’ll take an official visit to SDSU on June 13, then work out for the Jacks a day later. He also has private evaluations at Nebraska on June 18 and Wyoming on June 21.