The numbers you’re about to see are big. Impressive, suggestive of a running back making NCAA Division II football his own playground.
But they could be bigger. Way bigger.
Nate Gunn is a 6-2, 220-pound running back for Minnesota State Mankato, which will play West Florida for the Division II championship Saturday in McKinney, Texas. The Mavericks are in the D-II title game for the second time in program history (2014 was the other), and they’re seeking their first championship.
It will be the 40th game of Gunn’s three-year career with the Mavericks, a team he found after a sour, one-season experience at Division I South Dakota.
Gunn, in just three seasons, already dominates the school’s rushing records. He is tops in attempts (842), touchdowns (63) and yards (4,866) — with that last total being over a thousand more than Connor Thomas, who ran for 3,850 yards in a four-year career ending in 2015.
This year alone, for the 14-0 Mavericks, Gunn has run 241 times for 1,611 yards and 29 touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per rush.
“This is a tough, hard-nosed young man who plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Mavericks coach Todd Hoffner said. “He plays with something to prove.”
That chip can be traced to South Dakota, where Gunn first went after finishing high school at Minooka, Ill.
But the numbers?
Gunn came to Mankato in 2017, with the Mavericks coming off an 8-3 season — subpar, frankly, by their standards. Since then Minnesota State has lost just twice, both times deep in the NCAA Division II playoffs. Many of the wins have come in blowouts. And Hoffner has a rule. Once a game gets out of hand, his stars get out of the game.
“I’ve pulled him out of [blowout] games throughout his career,” Hoffner said. “We protect our special players.”
Hoffner estimates Gunn has missed out on maybe more than 200 snaps that he might otherwise have gotten. At his career average of 5.8 yards per rush, that’s about 1,160 yards, which would have pushed Gunn to about 6,000 yards. But:
“There is a bigger picture here,” Gunn said. “We want to win the championship.”
Mirror doesn’t lie
So how did he get here?
Gunn was recruited to South Dakota by Wesley Beschorner, then the Coyotes offensive coordinator, working under head coach Joe Glenn. But after Gunn’s freshman season, there was a coaching change. The new staff looked at the 6-2 Gunn and saw a linebacker. Gunn looked in the mirror and saw a running back.
“I knew it was time for me to move,” he said.
Turns out the Minnesota State offensive coordinator was Joe Beschorner, Wesley’s brother. That was the connection. The Mavericks coaches looked at his film. They had Gunn in for a visit. They were impressed.
Gunn, meanwhile, saw a system that was tailor-made for him. In an age of spread offenses, Hoffner likes to refer to his offense, proudly, as prehistoric. Power football. Lots of two tight-end formations. Running between the tackles.
To Gunn: heaven.
“I’m a physical guy,” he said. “I love power, the I-formation. When I came here, it was like I felt at home.”
That first training camp, coming off an 8-3 season, Hoffner worked his guys hard. Lots of contact, tackling. It was then when Gunn shined.
“Now, did we know he’d be the all-time leading rusher at Minnesota State? That he’d be the all-time leader in touchdowns? No,” Hoffner said.
But it became evident in a hurry that the Mavericks had something special. Hoffner has had a lot of Division I athletes transfer into the program. Generally, they fall into two categories. One group is full of players who feel they are above Division II. The other? Players who come with something to prove. Guess which one Gunn is.
“I’m a guy that was, at South Dakota, treated pretty much like I was nothing,” he said. “I was brushed under a mat. I knew what I could do, I knew my abilities. When I got to Mankato, I knew it was my last stop. If it didn’t work out there, football for me was over. It was sink or swim.”
It has worked out. Gunn has 27 100-yard games in his three-year career with the Mavericks. In three playoff games this season he has 302 yards and eight TDs. But his is not simply a power game.
“I won’t let you hit me head-on,” Gunn said. “I’m a downhill runner, but I do have a little wiggle in me. If you think you’re getting a guy who just runs straight, that’s not me.”
Even now, when Hoffner watches game film, he is surprised at how good Gunn is at avoiding big hits, even between the tackles.
“He’s nifty, very crafty,” Hoffner said. “He’s really good in small spaces, has a good feel. He finds whatever space is there and takes advantage of it. When you have that knack, you don’t take a lot of big shots.”
For Gunn, his future is full of options. He has already been offered a postgraduate job in the Twin Cities in medical sales.
But he might not be done with football after Saturday. His big numbers might get him a look next fall at a pro career. Gunn already has arranged to work out in the Twin Cities next summer. His potential employer knows it might have to wait.
“It’s my dream,” Gunn said. “I’m a competitor. They like that. In sales, you want competitive people.”
But first, Saturday.
“It has gone by fast,” he said of his time in Mankato. “But this is everything we’ve worked for.”