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Grizzlies Starting RB John Nguyen writes his own chapter at Montana 


College is meant to last four years, but John Nguyen’s relationship with the University of Montana is going on its eighth.

As a freshman he sat next to his mother, Hoa, in the football parents’ section near the north end zone at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It just wasn’t his freshman year of college.

John was a pint-sized first-year student at Bellevue High School in Seattle’s eastern suburb and he and his family drove the nearly 500 miles over inland desert and mountain ranges to Missoula for a handful of fall Saturdays. He wore maroon, the same shade as the jersey that would one day carry his name.

It was 2009 and a different Nguyen-stitched jersey was scampering around the stadium. John’s older brother Peter was also a freshman, this time at UM, and a member of the Grizzly football team.

The Griz made a run to the FCS title game that season. John never forgot the thrill of watching it happen.

“Being in the stands and watching the Griz play, you get that step-back perspective,” said John, now a senior running back at Montana. “Even watching the fans, seeing them cheer and yell, you see how die-hard they are. Which is awesome. You don’t get to see that on the field.”

Those Saturday’s seven years ago set the stage for John’s recruitment to and success at Montana. Three years into his playing career, the back is climbing the Grizzlies’ all-time rushing list and closing in on the numbers his sibling churned out earlier this decade.

***

There was never an offseason for the Nguyen (pronounced like “win”) boys.

Basketball ruled the winter and spring, but football was king in the fall. One by one, the four brothers passed through the halls of Bellevue High and strapped on the pads for the powerhouse Wolverines.

First came Daniel, then Peter, then David and finally John, the youngest by three years, but perhaps the most talented athlete. As a prep senior, John gashed opposing defenses for 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns. Bellevue — doing what Bellevue does — rolled to a 14-0 record and a Washington Class 3A state title as part of the school’s 40-plus-game win streak.

The small but quick back (even as a college senior he measures just 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds) was on Montana’s radar as his high school days wound to a close. His brother’s play at UM didn’t hurt and Bellevue has been among the most fertile recruiting grounds in the northwest for years, but John’s body of work spoke for itself, Griz running backs coach Justin Green said.

A shifty-style back like John was perfect for the spread offensive system run by coach Robin Pflugrad — Peter’s 1,985 career rushing yards are proof of that — but before John’s senior season at Bellevue, the Griz had an unexpected coaching change. Pflugrad was out, dumped by the administration along with athletic director Jim O’Day over misconduct among the football team. Mick Delaney and his pro-style, power back offense was in.

Montana wanted to take a shot on the younger Nguyen anyway and signed him with a scholarship as part of the recruiting class of 2013.

“We were recruiting for one type of offense, then all of a sudden we have a new type of offense,” said Green, who is also now the team’s recruiting coordinator. “He got kinda lost in that shuffle, at least we thought he would, but he ended up playing as a true freshman.”

John started one game as a true freshman and appeared in 10 others. He ran for 267 yards in his first season. Then another 265 in his second.

By the time Bob Stitt took over for Delaney as head coach in 2015, John was a seasoned junior ready to break out. He started all 13 games in Stitt’s offense last season and rolled to another 855 yards. But that wasn’t all.

Coming into 2016 he is the team’s leading returning rusher, receiver and punt returner with a total of 1,132 all-purpose yards.

“He’s a guy who never takes full blows,” said Green, who also coached the elder Nguyen in his final two seasons in maroon and silver. “You only ever get part of him. You have to break your feet to try and tackle him. He’s very dynamic in that way and strong in his legs to break arm tackles.”

There’s a toughness about him, but John’s elusiveness is what most impresses senior quarterback Brady Gustafson.

“He’s so shifty,” Gustafson explained. “At any point in time he can shake anybody, turn a zero-yard gain into 20. The dude, he’s like a magician back there. He shakes around and gets the tough yards.

“A lot of the time he’s doing the dirty work getting us down there, then somebody else will punch it in,” Gustafson continued, referring to John’s three rushing touchdowns in 184 carries last year. “Hopefully we get him a bunch of touchdowns this year so all of his hard work pays off.”

***

Running backs don’t reach 1,387 career rushing yards — already 19th most in UM history — by accident. But there’s more to a back than just running the ball.

John’s ability to perform in the passing game, and not just as a route runner, helped him get on the field more often as a young player. The Griz coaches have praised his work as a blocker the past two years as much as his rushing chops.

All that despite his minute stature.

“Montana football is filled with those guys, the ones that have outworked their size or what they look like or what you think they are gonna do,” said Green, himself a former Griz back who went on to play in the NFL. “He’s the epitome of a Montana type guy.”

With a senior season that matches his junior campaign, John could rocket up the Montana career rushing charts. He’s only 841 yards away from the Top 5, a navigable expanse if he remains healthy, especially considering the amount of returning talent on Montana’s offensive line.

“It’s awesome,” said Peter, now 25, who works for a title and escrow firm in Bellevue. “It’s cool to have a brother play at the same high school and then college to keep that name alive.”

The Montana two-some was even three briefly when David, a defensive back, walked on with the Griz after initially attending Montana Western in 2010.

With the Griz brothers playing the same position and both returning punts, they frequently live in a single breath in discussions among Griz fans. That’s fine by John.

Peter was a solid rusher and an all-Big Sky Conference player after all.

“It is great to be compared to him knowing he’s a great football player,” John said. “Obviously we have similar characteristics, but I have my own style and he has his own. I try to focus on myself, not shying away from him as a person but trying to be my own me.”

And that’s the latest great Griz running back in a long line of them.

Source: Griz RB John Nguyen writes his own chapter at Montana | University of Montana Grizzlies | missoulian.com

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