'This is how it's supposed to work, right?': On Bryce Boettcher's storybook Oregon start
The South Eugene star's future once looked destined only for the diamond. Now, he's a starting linebacker for the Ducks.
EUGENE — Kenny Koberstein is well aware it all sounds a tad hyperbolic, but the former South Eugene High School head football coach doesn’t know how else to talk about his former star.
Bryce Boettcher is just one of those cats.
A “special” player who Koberstein “won’t forget coaching.”
The kid who’s “never” failed at anything he’s tried to do.
The one who once played in a high school football game with a 100-plus-degree fever, who showed up for the optional 8 a.m. football lifts when he had baseball double-headers that same night, all because he “has a motor and has the desire that most kids don't.”
Koberstein admits it took some time to figure Boettcher out. But his motivations have long since come into focus and were only further hammered home when the junior safety-turned-linebacker became the first walk-on to start for the Oregon football program since 2017 in Saturday's season-opening win over Portland State.
“He's just a great kid that worked really hard and some really good things are happening for him…,” Koberstein said. “This is how it's supposed to work, right?”
Oregon’s season-opener may have served as the first introduction for many to Boettcher, who tallied four tackles and a fumble recovery in the 81-7 victory, but Koberstein’s came late in the spring of 2019. He had just been hired to turn around a program without a winning season in over a decade, and wanted to connect early with his projected starting quarterback.
So, he attended one of Boettcher’s baseball games.
“He comes over to me and he introduces himself to you like he's a 30 year old man…,” Koberstein said. “‘Hi, I’m Bryce Boettcher.’ Nice firm handshake. ‘Nice to meet you.’ Looked me in the eyes. I'm used to high school kids, you know, you dap them up, ask them their name, they kind of mumble, they might look at you, they might not.
“There was just kind of right away, very much a presence around who he is… [He’s] very old school in that respect.”
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Koberstein coached Boettcher for a single season, his senior year, but experienced the full display. Reflecting now, the former coach needs just a single anecdote to paint the picture.
The staff prior to Koberstein’s worried about the health of the starting quarterback. They didn’t want him to run the ball. Playing two ways was out of the question. However, Boettcher was an athlete playing quarterback more than he was a quarterback who happened to be athletic. Koberstein felt it would be a disservice to limit his upside on the ground. The coach was more than comfortable setting the dual threat quarterback free and allowing him to start at safety, too.
Boettcher really didn’t care where he played — as long as he was on the field.
For example: Midway through one 2019 practice, Boettcher was lined up on defense against the scout team offense. He noticed one of his teammates, a starting wide receiver and, coincidentally, one of his best friends, on the sideline instead.
From some “30 yards away,” Boettcher started to yell towards him.
“He was like, ‘Hey, why aren't you on the scout team,” Koberstein said, “and says the kid's name. And the kid’s shocked. He's like, ‘Well, you know, this other kid,’ who was one of our backups, ‘he jumped in first.’ And Bryce had some colorful language. ‘You're not making us better standing back there. Get on the scout team.’”
Koberstein added: “He has no tolerance for people that aren't going to help make him great.”
The Boettcher-led 2019 team went on to be the first South Eugene squad with a winning record in the previous 13 seasons. He finished his high school career lettering four times in baseball and football, and three times in basketball. While his stock as a football recruit rose as high as 3 stars, his athletic future looked sure to play out on the baseball diamond, rather than the gridiron.
That is, until 2022.
Having developed into a key utility player for Oregon’s baseball program, Boettcher, in many ways, was already living out the Eugene local’s athletic dream. But something was amiss.
“[He said] he got to this point where he really missed the juice that football brings…,” Koberstein said. “[He] missed Friday nights. Missed the weight room. Missed those types of competitive things.”
Boettcher attended walk-on tryouts, made the team at safety, and nearly-immediately began operating on the Ducks’ kickoff coverage unit. He played 91 snaps, recording two tackles, and was one of 15 football/baseball dual-sport athletes across the entirety of FBS in 2022, and the lone player in the Pac-12.
“I remember talking to him last year when he joined football and I was like, ‘Man you're already on the kickoff team, that's sick,’” Koberstein said. “And he's like, ‘No, this sucks. I want to play defense. I need to be on the field.’”
Lo and behold, just like he did in his final season at South Eugene, Boettcher found a way. He spent a productive series of fall pre-season practices running with the first- and second-team defenses at linebacker after having impressed in the spring.
During a time when the Ducks football roster has never featured the state, and its local prep stars, less, Boettcher has grabbed hold of the dream. Now he’s doing everything in his power to keep it in his grasp.
“You want to stop and smell the roses,” he said after his first career start, “but you still gotta be hungry.”
It’s possible that Saturday’s start marks a high-point. That, as the health of Oregon’s roster continues to fluctuate, he seldom appears on defense moving forward. Or perhaps this is just the beginning of a season sure to feature plenty of shoutouts to the kid who grew up in the shadow of the Oregon campus.
That’s the beauty of college football.
“I’m trying to show everyone that it’s possible,” Boettcher said. “I’m playing for my hometown and the team I grew up watching. It was well-worth the sacrifice and if they need me to run through a wall or anything else, I’m willing to lay my life on the line to do it. I care that much about this university and this program.”
— Shane Hoffmann, for The I-5 Corridor
Shane Hoffmann is a contributor to The I-5 Corridor. You can also find his work in The Oregonian and SBLive.com