BY RICH PALZEWIC
PHOTOS COURTESY OF UMD ATHLETICS
DULUTH – Although rather small in stature, 2015 Bay Port graduate Austin Sylvester is coming through in a big way for the University of Minnesota-Duluth football team this season.
Sylvester, an honorable-mention running back in the Fox River Classic Conference after his senior season, is a key reason why the Bulldogs are currently 8-2 overall and right in the thick of things for a postseason playoff berth.
After beginning the season 1-2, the Bulldogs have rattled off seven straight wins and are gaining momentum heading into the regular-season finale this weekend.
Through 10 games, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound redshirt freshman, has 363 yards rushing on 91 carries for a solid four yards per-carry average. Austin has also added 83 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns on the year.
His two biggest games came in victories over Upper Iowa and Northern State where he had 128 all-purpose yards and 104 yards rushing respectively.
“I had talked to a decent amount of schools back during the recruiting process, but I didn’t know a whole lot about Duluth,” said Sylvester, who is studying business and plans to major in sales and marketing. “I knew they were up north and were a Division II program, but that’s about it.
“When the coaches came to (Bay Port) to meet with me, we were in the office and (Principal Mike) Frieder walked in and said, ‘I just want to let you know that Austin Sylvester is the hardest working kid we’ve had here at Bay Port.’ That was a pretty memorable moment.”
Sylvester went up to Duluth for an official visit soon thereafter and committed the next day. He liked the coaching staff and how it basically felt like an extension of Bay Port: a big family.
“When you leave a great place like Bay Port, you want to find a spot just like it,” Sylvester said. “I can say 100 percent that I picked the right place in Duluth. My teammates and coaches are great.”
Austin had a little different process heading into his first year at Duluth compared to others. It wasn’t a given that he was going to redshirt and he even got to dress for a few games.
“Most everyone knows right away if they are going to redshirt their first year, but we were pretty low at running back,” he said. “I got to experience the game-day feel a few times, but halfway through the season I was told I was going to sit the year out. My coaches told me that they felt I could have gotten the job done, but they wanted to save me for the next year when I’d contribute even more.”
Athletes that redshirt practice all year and can even dress like Sylvester did, but once they get into a game – even for one play – their redshirt status is pulled.
Entering the winter months last year, Sylvester still wasn’t sure where he stood in the running-back rotation, but a strong weight-lifting campaign where he improved his squat to 500 pounds didn’t hurt. He was also performing well when it came to off-season drills.
“We have a lot of good running backs on the team, but coming into fall camp a few months ago, I started to get the idea that I would get more playing time because the coaches were starting to rest me some,” said Sylvester.
Despite his smaller size, he has avoided major injury and attributes that to his conditioning and weight training. Austin says the biggest difference between the high-school level and Duluth is the amount of film study, practice and weight training that takes place.
“Football in college is like a job, but I love that aspect of it,” Sylvester said. “You’re at it for 12 hours a day trying to fit it around your school schedule.
“As for the game itself, it’s just a lot more at the college level pre-snap. I thought I was well-educated in high school, but everyone in college is way more educated, too. A lot of your big plays in high school are off of blown assignments by the defense, but you don’t see as much of that in college.”
Sylvester hopes to eventually become a captain and find the peak of his athletic ability.
Even though he loves Duluth, that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t miss playing for the Pirates on Friday nights.
“The thing I miss the most is that high school football is a true brotherhood, because those are all the guys you grew up,” Sylvester added. “I miss messing around with the team. I played with a lot of great athletes like Alec (Ingold) and Cole (Van Lanen from UW-Madison).
“When we go on the road now to North Dakota or Nebraska, you look up in the stands and don’t really know anyone. No matter where we traveled when I was at Bay Port, I always knew almost everyone in the stands. You can never beat the high school feel.”