BOZEMAN, Montana — Looking at Bryce Sterk’s chiseled physique and apparent natural physical gifts, one would assume the young man defines the persona that often accompanies youth and talent.
When Sterk used to look inside himself, he did not know what to think. He found himself second-guessing himself, the humility instilled in him growing up in a rural farming community in Northwestern Washington coming to the surface often. Sterk had a hard time translating the potential that so many identified in him during his decorated prep career at Lynden High School.
A month after arriving on Montana State’s campus in the winter of 2018, Sterk conducted his first interview with the media. The shy, timid junior defensive end that had just transferred from the University of Washington made a revelatory comment that displayed his slanted view of himself.
“You know, I’m not the biggest or the strongest guy,” the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder said back then as his muscular frame stretched the hooded Montana State sweatshirt he wore.
Over the last two years, that bashful young man has blossomed into a true alpha male. Once he acclimated to MSU’s defensive scheme last fall, Sterk became a nightmare for opposing offenses to block from Sterk’s hybrid Buck position on the edge of the Bobcat defense.
Since the end of last season, the maturation process has continued. So has the diversity of Sterk’s skill set, his physical abilities and, perhaps most importantly, his confidence.
“I really think he’s grown into himself, come into his own and become his own man,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said. “That level of confidence and maturity has been incredible to see.”
To see Sterk now is to see the big man on campus. Before last season, he posed in his jersey holding a sign that read “The Real No. 37”, a direct shot at the legacy number worn by three decades worth of legendary defenders for MSU’s fiercest rivals, the Montana Grizzlies.
That prod came from former MSU defensive coordinator and Buck end coach Ty Gregorak, who spent 12 seasons at UM before jumping to the other side of the fierce rivalry. Although Sterk looked the part and went on to produce at an affirming level — he led the Big Sky Conference with 8.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss — the swagger that goes with a fearsome defensive player was still a work in progress.
During the off-season, Sterk transitioned from Buck, a spot on the edge where he played standing up as much as he played with his hand in the dirt, to the “I5” on the boundary side of the field. Sterk almost exclusively plays in a 3-point stance at his new position.
The transition has been nothing short of earth shattering for the Bobcats. Sterk has been straight up unblockable for the first month of the season. He has already equaled his sack total from last season with 8.5 quarterback take downs, by far the best total in the country through four games.
“Bryce has really taken the next step in the way he prepares,” MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said. “In the weight room, he has always been that guy trying to get better in terms of strength and conditioning.
“But I think he’s really taken that next step this year putting in that extra work with (defensive line) Coach (Byron) Hout whether it’s technique, fundamentals, really starting to study the film of his opponents. He understands formations, tendencies, understands in the scheme of your defense where he fits. That’s really why he has been so productive.”
That and his mentality. To listen to Sterk talk now, he is confident with his words and his message. He carries himself with an aura of self-assurance. He uses words like “dominant” and “elite” when describing the goals and aspirations of Montana State’s defensive front. He is a leader who garners respect from teammates and coaches alike. He is what Choate knew he could become when he first recruited Sterk to the Washington Huskies five years ago.
“He’s a young man who comes from a very good family and I think humility was one thing that he was taught when he was young,” Choate said. “Don’t make it about you. Make it about others. Sometimes that humility can be misconstrued as lack of confidence or there’s so much respect, you will hang back and let somebody else take it. I think that was the case for him at a certain degree at Washington. Coach says wait your turn and he sat back and took in what he could.
“I’ll tell you this: I bet Washington wishes they had him right now on the edge.”
Sterk first met Choate when Choate was the defensive line coach at the University of Washington. Choate invited Sterk to attend UW’s contest against Big Sky Conference powerhouse Eastern Washington in September of 2014.
“That was the first game I watched where I realized the Big Sky Conference was legit,” Sterk said with a laugh. “Eastern Washington had Vernon Adams and Cooper Kupp and lost 59-52.”
Sterk remembers Choate’s first impression reminding him in certain ways about legendary Lynden coach Curt Kramme.
“When I first met Choate, he was straight to the point, high energy, knew what he was talking about and that drew me toward committing to Washington,” Sterk said.
During his time playing for Kramme at Lynden High, Sterk was part of one of the dominant small-school football teams in the Evergreen State. Kramme coached the Lions for 26 years, winning 248 games and seven state titles. Sterk played on three of those state title teams between 2011 and 2013.
“The program had an impact on me but not as much as the head coach at the time, Curt Kramme,” Sterk said. “He preached the same message as Choate. It’s not all about football. There are life lessons in football that you can learn that carry over outside of it. Him and the message he preached on how to be a better man really had a big influence on me.
“Having a dominant football culture like that, you don’t like losing and you get used to having the taste of winning so you want to keep the ball rolling and keep winning like that.”
Growing up in a town of about 12,000 people with a strong Dutch presence had an influence on the foundation that makes up Sterk’s personality. Outside the city limits of Lynden, “You find either dairy farms or raspberry fields.”
“It’s a huge farming community and I worked on a lot of those growing up. Working on those and working in my dad’s construction business, you learn when you work hard, you usually earn something. Being outside of town, playing in the dirt was a huge part of my childhood. I think that had a huge influence on developing me into who I am.”
The Lions won 32 straight games, advancing to four straight state games. As a senior, Sterk earned conference MVP honors and was a unanimous all-state selection after logging 147 tackles and 10 sacks. He was ranked as one of the top 15 football prospects in the state of Washington and was a standout sprinter, hurdler and thrower for the Lynden track and field team.
“He’s long but his best asset is he can run,” Choate said. “He runs way better than people think. He covers kcikoffs for us and he is one of the first three guys down the field. That’s one thing that stood out early in high school was how well he could run. He was raw and playing at a lower level of football but if we can get this guy here with these gifts, he can go.”
When Sterk got to Seattle, he felt like he was “drinking from a fire hose” as he tried to acclimate to life in the largest city in the Northwest and learn what it takes to compete in the Pac 12.
Sterk said he knew he was redshirting “about a week into fall camp” and he was ok with it. He decided to dedicate himself in the weight room, using the workouts as his competitive outlet.
Washington’s redshirt lifting program includes a competition every Friday. The “big skill” players, the standard skill players and linemen each compete for 10 points for their respective groups. By the end of the year, the top performers from each of the three groups earn Washington’s “Ultimate Dirt Dawg”, which Sterk won in 2015.
“That year really set the standard for me,” Sterk said. “I knew if I could really compete in the weight room like that then I couldn’t really let myself slide. As the years went on and I got less and less playing time, the weight room was pretty much my time to compete. So I made sure that if that was all I had, that was what I’m going to dominate in.”
That Washington defensive line featured some of the most dominant players in college football while under the tutelage of Choate, including firs-round draft picks like Danny Shelton and Vita Vea. Sterk was slated to play on the edge but he had a hard time earning an opportunity from the outset. No matter the work ethic in the weight room, Sterk had a hard time climbing the depth chart.
“It was a little bit frustrating,” Sterk said. “Those guys weren’t my position but they were still really good. A lot of those guys went to the NFL or were invited to camp. Even then, I was a three or four on the depth chart and I still wouldn’t be getting any reps. That was the most frustrating thing: I really wasn’t getting a shot.”
“I wasn’t disappointed that good guys were playing. But I just wasn’t given much of a chance to prove yourself.”
Despite the frustration, Sterk never considered walking away from the game he has loved since he first started playing it.
“Truly, I love football,” Sterk said. “Even the years I wasn’t playing, I still loved it because of the camaraderie you have with people, how you push yourself every day, how you get out of your comfort zone. That was something I couldn’t leave. I would feel defeated and really ashamed of myself if I quit something that I started.”
Following Sterk’s first season at UW, Choate left to take the head coaching job at Montana State. In 2016, Sterk played in wins over Rutgers and Idaho. In 2017, he did not play in a game. By the end of that campaign, Sterk needed a new opportunity.
He met Choate in Seattle and Choate gave him a line that has resonated with Sterk since he made his decision to become a Bobcat.
“I’ve said this since we signed him – all I’m asking from you is for you to believe in yourself as much as I believe in you twice now,” Choate said last season.
Now that Sterk believes in himself, his coaches believe that very few teams will be able to block the 6-foot-5, now 262-pound NFL hopeful. In MSU’s dominant 38-17 win over No. 12 Southeast Missouri State, Sterk spearheaded a pass rush onslaught that left SEMO quarterback Daniel Santacanterina “jittery”, Sterk said. He had three sacks that night.
“Coming into college, I only really worried about what I was doing, my position, just making sure I got the call right,” Sterk said. “Now, there’s more focus on technique, what the other defensive linemen are doing. Once you really have that stuff honed in, then you can start looking at what their personnel is and how their stances are, seeing what they are going to do which really helps their game.
“I feel a lot more comfortable. Last year was my first year I played a lot in college football. That sort of reps, you can watch film and practice and all that stuff but real life game reps, you can’t replicate that on the sideline.”
The following week, he had a sack against Western Illinois, giving him four for the season, the third-best mark in Division I football through three games. Last week, Sterk had 3.5 more sacks in MSU’s 56-21 win over Norfolk State. His sack total leads the Big Sky by a wide margin as Montana State gets set to open Big Sky play against Northern Arizona in Bozeman on Saturday.
“It’s hard to say because I have seen guys from the Southland, the Ohio Valley, watch a lot of crossover film but I think he’s up there,” Chaote said when asked if Sterk is the best pass rusher in the FCS. “Numbers speak to it. You don’t have that kind of production over that period of time without being a good player. He’s showing up every single week. When you do that, you draw a lot of attention. When you are drawing attention and you are still producing, you are probably one of the better guys around.”
“He has been flat dominant,” MSU senior captain and defensive lineman Derek Marks added earlier this week.
Sterk is closing in on his degree in sociology. He will graduate next spring. He plans on training for Montana State’s pro day after the season, although he is quick to acknowledge he is not thinking about any sort of NFL dreams until the goals of the next three months are chased and, perhaps, achieved.
He credits his family — he’s the second in a line of four sibligns, the oldest a brother who is 24 and the youngest a sister who is a senior in high school — with driving him as a kid and providing a foundation for him as a college student. His parents have been able to attend every game so far this season as he navigates his final year of college football.
And Sterk is finally able to credit himself. The physically gifted, humble hard worker has blossomed into an intimidating yet gracious defensive end who is the pride of his coaches, the glue amongst his teammates and a credit to his growth as a man during his time as a Bobcat.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to trust yourself,” Sterk said. “There was some times when I double guessed myself and it got me in hot water and passed up at Washington. Here, there’s a different kind of confidence that I’ve found. I just have to trust myself to do it and if I screw up, I’ll fix it later. I have grown so much in my belief in myself and my abilities. Now I’m just able to play the game I love and have fun.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.