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Ihlenfeldt thriving at St. Norbert

By Greg Bates

DE PERE – Nate Ihlenfeldt couldn’t be happier.

He gets to play college football within miles of this family and friends, and he’s in a great situation on and off the field.

In his second season on the St. Norbert College football team, the former Notre Dame Academy star is getting his shot at being the feature running back in a high-powered offense.

“The second year coming back and being more familiar with everything makes everything more comfortable,” Ihlenfeldt said. “I’m more comfortable with all the guys and the coaches. It feels like home, and it’s much easier to have fun and do what you’re doing when it feels like home.”

After rushing for 4,016 yards with 61 touchdowns as a two-year starter for the Tritons, the 2017 Notre Dame graduate received extended looks from several Division I programs.

Ihlenfeldt ventured west as a preferred walk-on at the University of Washington – he wanted to experience college football at an elite level in the Pac-12.

Ihlenfeldt was hoping to show what he could do on the field, but Washington may not have been his best option.

After redshirting as a freshman, Ihlenfeldt went into his second season with the Huskies looking to gauge where he stood on the running backs depth chart.

Ihlenfeldt said he was fifth out of five on the depth chart – that made his decision to transfer easier.

“It was a mixture of playing time and other things,” Ihlenfeldt said. “I hit a point where I realized I wanted to play football because it’s the game I love and the game I grew up playing for 12 years. I wanted to come to St. Norbert to get the opportunity to play and be with people who felt the same way.”

Ihlenfeldt said he will never second-guess his decision to go to Washington.

“The athletes are amazing out there,” Ihlenfeldt said. “You learn a lot about yourself. You learn a lot about being on your own, especially that far across the country. But then you always learn about why you love being here. I learned that I love being around my family, I love being around my friends and I love being around a group of people who are really tight-knit.”

At Washington, Ihlenfeldt was able to play alongside some great players, including the team’s No. 1 running back that season, Myles Gaskin.

Gaskin, who is the school’s all-time leading rusher and now plays for the Miami Dolphins, taught Ihlenfeldt how to practice.

“You come in every day with a mentality you’re going to get better, and you play every rep like you’re getting better,” Ihlenfeldt said. “That’s something a lot of kids growing up don’t understand – how important practice is. I learned how to practice full speed all the time.”

When he reopened his recruiting process, Ihlenfeldt said he wanted to be closer to home.

He checked out a few schools, including the University of Minnesota but quickly realized the ideal scenario was in his backyard and transferred to St. Norbert in the summer of 2018.

“The first day on campus is when I knew I made the right choice,” Ihlenfeldt said. “I never came and took a visit beforehand. I knew St. Norbert from being from here.”

Ihlenfeldt was welcomed into the St. Norbert football family with open arms.

“Not just Nate but we’ve had several transfers since we’ve been here,” St. Norbert football coach Dan McCarty said. “The word is starting to get out on our program with coaches and how we run a program and take care of our kids, which is what we pride ourselves on. It’s pretty special the culture we have here and how much our coaching staff cares about our kids. It was obviously huge for us to get Nate.”

As a freshman, Ihlenfeldt was the second leading rusher on the team with 77 carries for 368 yards and two touchdowns.

“Last year, I don’t think he’ll admit it, but he was a little banged up,” McCarty said. “He’s had a tremendous start to this year. You see the explosion and the shiftiness. He understands the system. He’s going to keep getting better in his time here.”

This season as a sophomore, Ihlenfeldt came into camp with the shot to be the main running back.

He leads the team with 94 carries for 709 yards and seven touchdowns.

“Nate’s a great player,” St. Norbert wide receiver Samuel Staehling said. “Last year, he was moving around to different positions trying to get used to the things, but he’s been locked in this year. Every time we have a chance to get him the ball, it’s a chance to score. He’s that type of player.”

Ihlenfeldt had a breakout performance against Ripon on Oct. 26 with 29 carries for 241 yards with touchdown runs of 56, 19 and 11 yards.

“The line gave me some great holes, so I can’t take all the credit,” Ihlenfeldt said. “I’m excited to get the opportunity. Whatever I’ve got to do to help the team, I’m going to do it.”

Ihlenfeldt also has seven catches for 28 yards, and he’s on kickoff return as well.

“We’ve got to get the ball in his hands as many ways as we can,” McCarty said. “There will be more play-action pass where we’ll get him the ball in the passing game a little bit. Special teams wise, he’s been returning for us throughout the year, and he’s going to be our workhorse at running back as we try to make a run here.”

With St. Norbert off to a 5-2 start this season, there is plenty of promise on the team.

Ihlenfeldt said he loves his teammates and believes his team can make a push in the playoffs.

If this isn’t the year, Ihlenfeldt still has two more seasons to leave his mark on the program.

“I want to take this program the furthest it’s ever been,” Ihlenfeldt said. “Obviously, our goal is a conference championship, and we’re going to take it one game at a time. I want this program to get to that national championship level and be that top-tier program.”

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