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Catching up with Kyle Vantrease, whose college wins are putting him on NFL radars

The University of Nebraska football program is not what it used to be.

Not even close.

The word “Nebraska,” though, still has that special ring to it that conjures up memories of days gone by like the “Game of the Century” victory over Oklahoma in 1971, multiple national championships and countless top 10 finishes.

That is why Georgia Southern’s 45-42 upset of Nebraska – in the Cornhuskers’ own Memorial Stadium – Sept. 10 will still go down as perhaps the biggest win in the history of an Eagles program that has been pretty successful in almost a century of fielding a team.

A huge factor in Georgia Southern’s victory over Nebraska was the play of sixth-year senior quarterback Kyle Vantrease, a 2017 graduate of Stow-Munroe Falls High School. Vantrease was 37-of-56 for 409 yards with a touchdown pass and two interceptions against the Cornhuskers. To cap off his huge night, Vantrease scored the winning touchdown himself on an 8-yard run with 36 seconds to go in the game.

“It was definitely one of the high points of my career,” said Vantrease, who a year ago went to Lincoln, Nebraska, as the starting quarterback for the University at Buffalo, a game the Cornhuskers won 28-3. 

“Having played there last year and losing with Buffalo and then coming down here to Georgia Southern and going back up there and winning in the same stadium, it was awesome. Silencing 80,000 people is a feeling that not a lot of teams get to be able to experience in such a historic stadium like that with a historic team. It was an unbelievable experience. I’m so happy I got to be a part of it with the team and the coaches. It will be something that all of us will always talk about forever. I’m definitely blessed to have gone out there and played the way I did.”

Asked if playing at Nebraska last season helped him in preparation for this year’s game, Vantrease said yes and no.

“It’s different when you’re preparing with a different offense,” he said. “I had a little bit of knowledge, but when you’re preparing in two different offenses you’re looking at different things, you’re attacking different aspects of the defense. The base stuff is very obvious on film, and the coaches are doing what they’re paid to do. They’re breaking down film and getting us in the best situations for us to be successful as players.

“I’d say the biggest piece that I took away from last year was just being in that atmosphere, being in that setting. I’d done it before, I’m comfortable there, so the stadium and the moment were never too big for me. And if I could exude that confidence, all I wanted was my team to be able to see that, to bring my teammates’ confidence levels up as well.”

Vantrease said that the atmosphere on game day in Lincoln is a beautiful thing to see.

“They have the most continuous sellout streak in college football history,” he said. “They love watching their team succeed. Out in Nebraska, that’s their team. There’s no professional team there. They rally behind them and they’re there the entire time.

“They’re rowdy, they love to get after it, but they’re also very great fans, really great people. They thank you for coming and competing, which is something that you don’t really see too often in college football. They’re very respectful. A lot of them came up to me after this year’s game and said, ‘Great game, Kyle. We loved watching you these last two years.’”

Kyle Vantrease

Big-time wins like that benefit a program like Georgia Southern.

“For us to go out there and beat a Power Five school like that,” said Vantrease, “it definitely brings a lot of attention, especially for a school like Georgia Southern that used to be all triple option, all run. For us to go out there and throw the ball 50-60 times and win in a Power Five stadium is awesome. Winning is a huge part of recruiting. Nobody wants to go to a school that can’t win. So being able to put our culture, our success, on display in front of that many fans in that setting is huge for us.”

Vantrease early enrolled at Buffalo in the spring of 2017. His head coach his first four seasons there was Lance Leipold, who, as the head man at Kansas now, has the perennial patsy Jayhawks off to a 5-0 start this season. Vantrease took over the starting QB job at Buffalo midway through the 2019 season and never looked back. He led the Bulls to an 8-5 finish that year, including a 31-9 victory over Charlotte in the Bahamas Bowl. He directed his team to a 6-1 mark in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, including a 17-10 triumph over Marshall in the Camellia Bowl.  

Vantrease transferred to Georgia Southern when he noticed that the landscape of the Buffalo team was changing somewhat.

“We’d gotten a new coaching staff right before that last season in 2021,” he said. “A lot of my friends, the guys who I came in with, were either graduated or were transferring. It was my last year of eligibility, and I wanted to be in an offense that threw the ball a little bit more and I could showcase my skillset. I was super blessed to have found Georgia Southern, [Head] Coach [Clay] Helton and [offensive coordinator/quarterbacks] Coach [Bryan] Ellis and the rest of the staff who gave me that opportunity.”

Ellis said Vantrease was an easy fit at Georgia Southern.

“The biggest thing that Coach Helton and myself value the most in quarterbacks is the intangibles, the things that aren’t coached, the things that are natural, the type of person you are and the toughness that you bring,” Ellis said. “I think when you look at somebody and you’re trying to recruit them, football is a very, very quarterback-driven game, and most teams that have a good quarterback are going to find ways to win. There aren’t very many teams, from Pee Wee football to the NFL, that have really good quarterbacks that don’t win games. You look at Kyle’s career at Buffalo, the passes that he completed and the games that they won. He played in two MAC championship games. He’s been in a lot of battles, a lot of close games. He doesn’t panic when it doesn’t always go his way, and that’s a special attribute. Anyone who is a leader of a team sport, that’s something you have to have. Those type of things are important to us.”

Vantrease has led the Eagles to a 3-2 start this season, including a 59-7 rout of Morgan State and a 34-23 win over Ball State. He has completed 142 of 234 passes for 1,574 yards with 10 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He has a quarterback rating of 125.3. He has also run for two touchdowns.

“I think I’m doing a decent job of spreading the ball around to the playmakers, and that’s really my goal – to get the ball in the hands of the guys who are going to make plays,” he said. “We’ve turned the ball over a little bit more than I would’ve liked, but it’s the game of football. I’m not going to play scared. I’m out there to make plays and want to keep being a gunslinger because that’s what my true nature is.”

Vantrease spreads the ball around well. In the win over Morgan State, he threw four touchdown passes to four different players.

“Some receivers on some teams are targeted more,” he said, “but in this offense it’s not about who’s where, it’s about finding the open guy because they’re all great playmakers. I don’t look out there and think, ‘I need to get the ball to this person.’ I go out there and think, ‘OK, which option is the best option for this play? Who’s going to be open on this play against the defense that they’re running?’ It’s my job to deliver them a ball that they can go and make things shake with.”

At 6-feet-2 and 225 pounds, Vantrease is a true pocket passer, but he’s not a statue back there.

“If you need five, six yards here and there, I can definitely go and run for it,” he said. “I’m a bigger body, so I can take some hits. I’m not fast by any means, but I don’t consider myself slow.”

“Kyle is also accurate and can throw the long ball,” said Ellis.

“I’m very happy with where we’re at right now,” Vantrease said. “We’ve played some really good football, but we haven’t played a whole lot of complete football all the way around the ball whether it’s offense, defense, special teams. We haven’t put a complete game together, and we’re always striving for that as we continue the season.

“As we go and get into [Sun Belt] conference play, the experiences we’ve had up to this point are making us who we are. Nobody likes to lose a game, but it teaches you valuable lessons about who you are and what this team is and how you can respond and bounce back. As a team, we have a great mindset and are ready for the next opponent. We’re excited for the rest of the season.”

Vantrease earned his undergraduate degree in business administration from Buffalo in 2020. At the time of his transfer to Georgia Southern, he was two or three classes away from getting his master’s degree in international trade.

“I’ll go back to Buffalo and finish at some point,” he said. “Right now, I’m taking some coaching classes, learning a little bit about the coaching side of things. I’m also taking a golf class, which is a lot of fun. I’m really enjoying it.”

Like many young boys, Vantrease’s dream was always to play in the NFL.

“Growing up and watching NFL teams, my favorite player was Peyton Manning,” he said. “Seeing him out there, it just looked like he was always having fun. Once I picked up a football at a young age, I fell in love with the sport. For me to not chase that dream … I’d be doing a disservice to myself, so that’s the plan.”

Vantrease tries to pattern himself after certain NFL quarterbacks – somewhat.

“You don’t want to become the same blueprint of someone else, you want to stay true to who you are,” he said. “Now, there are certain attributes of a guy like Manning, a guy like Tom Brady, a guy like Drew Brees, a guy like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, those kinds of guys, all these successful quarterbacks. You want to take bits and pieces from them and apply those bits and pieces to your game and apply them to your leadership because they’re [or were] so successful at such a high level that if you didn’t try and pick apart their success and apply it to your game, you wouldn’t be putting yourself in the best situation. But, at the same time, you have to stay true to who you are. So just kind of finding that gray area of learning from them but also being who you are, that’s where I try to stay.”

“I think Kyle is talented enough to be a pro quarterback,” said Ellis. “I think he has a chance.”

Vantrease realizes this year’s Nebraska game will be far from the only game he played in that NFL teams will look at.

“Now, that Nebraska game was a huge game for the possibility of me going and playing at the next level, but they’re going to look at everything,” he said. “They’re going to look at my film from Buffalo, they’re going to look at every game I played in at Georgia Southern. And they’re going to take that all into account.”

Vantrease will never forget his days playing for Stow-Munroe Falls.

“It was awesome playing there,” he said. “Friday night football, high school football … you can talk to anybody in the world of football, all the way up to the people who are succeeding at the highest level, and they will tell you that there’s nothing like Friday night lights.

“Growing up, Stow wasn’t always great at football, but when I got into high school they started picking it up a little bit. My freshman year we went 10-2. My sophomore year, my first season starting, we went 7-3. My junior year we went 13-1 and got to the Division I state semifinals, and my senior year we were 10-2. To be able to be successful like that was awesome. I look back on those days all the time. I definitely miss the guys I played with. I like where I’m at now, and I wouldn’t be where I’m at now without those days playing for Stow-Munroe Falls.     

“I’ll always remember winning at Wadsworth my junior year when I threw a long touchdown pass down the left sideline with little time left. The playoff games … going down and beating Olentangy in a regional final at the Massillon stadium. Those games stick out to me, but the things I like to think about a lot are the times I spent with the team, with the coaches, practicing, that kind of stuff. Those are the memories I’m really fond of.”