The Gueller Brothers’ Last Ride
BENGALS: Mitch and Tanner Gueller are the Offensive Stars for Idaho State in Final Season Together
By Aaron VanTuyl
For The Chronicle
POCATELLO, Idaho — Their second stint as gridiron teammates may be coming to an end, but Mitch and Tanner Gueller aren’t going to shed any tears over it.
Not yet, anyway.
The brothers and W.F. West High School products are gearing up for their final season together on Idaho State University’s football team, and celebrated the occasion by representing the Bengals at Big Sky Football Media Days in Spokane last month.
Mitch, the responsible older brother, is a 24-year-old college junior and returning All-Conference first-team wide receiver; Tanner, the goofball little brother, is a redshirt senior and on the Bengals’ top-5 list for career touchdowns, passing yards and completions.
They’ll go their separate ways next summer, but until then they’re enjoying the dream life in Pocatello: Making plays on the field, living under the same roof and chasing an elusive Big Sky championship.
The 2017 season was, by all accounts, a breakout year for Mitch Gueller. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound receiver played in nine games, caught 36 passes for 871 yards and eight touchdowns, caught a school-record 97-yard touchdown pass (thrown by his younger brother) in a win over Portland State, and had four games with over 100 receiving yards.
It all added up to a spot on the Big Sky’s All-Conference first team.
“There’s a lot of good talent in the Big Sky, especially at wide receiver,” he said. “It’s kind of known as an offensive conference, so it’s a huge honor and a big surprise to be picked as one of the best in the conference.”
Part of the jump in production was due, simply, to readjusting to football life. Gueller was selected 54th overall in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft by the Philadelphia Phillies and, when he was released in the spring of 2016, opted to join his little brother in Idaho — and on the football field.
“I kind of got my feet wet the first year,” he said, “and just got more comfortable with it and was given a bigger role, and was fortunate to just fill that.”
Mitch had last played receiver his sophomore year of high school, which was the 2009 season; he started at quarterback for the Bearcats in 2010 and 2011, leading W.F. West to the State 2A semifinals his senior year.
“He was looking at seven years removed from running routes, so of course he was rusty,” Tanner said. “He did a good job of getting in the weight room and getting that football strength back. He’s gotten a lot better since he first got here, for sure.”
At 24, he’s also bigger and stronger than he would have been had he gone the football route straight out of high school.
“He’s a different person as a 24-year-old now than 18-year-olds coming in. He’s physically different now,” Tanner said, joking that his brother is the grumpy old man of the team. “I mean, he’s bald. He’s different.”
Still, though, Mitch knows an All-Conference bid isn’t as noteworthy as a few more wins would be.
“The accolades, they are what they are, but at the end of the day they don’t help you win football games,” Mitch said. “Last year I was lucky enough to get the first-team bid, but we have three or four other guys that can have a couple big games in a row, and they’re looking at the same thing.”
Academically, Mitch is in ISU’s business program, majoring in finance and considering a double-major with accounting.
“It’s a great program, and a lot of fun,” he said. “I have great professors and I’m learning a lot, so I have no complaints on the school end of things.”
He also spent his second summer in a row working a day job at Jamba Juice — a position slightly more low-key than his pitching days.
“I’m not so sure I’m cut out for customer service for the rest of my life, but it’s nice to have a little bit of cash, and something to do,” he said. “I had a good time doing it. I’m glad it’s over, though.”
The Little Brother
Tanner Gueller, a redshirt senior, started three games as a redshirt freshman and has been the Bengals’ starter ever since. He’s a fixture in ISU’s career record book with one season to go: third in touchdown passes (47; the record is 64), fifth in passing yards (5,960), fifth in completions (515) and sixth in attempts (901).
“A lot of it’s just a product of starting three games as a freshman and being thrown into things,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of ball, and that’s what happens when you’re in a throwing offense and you end up playing a ton of football.”
The biggest number for Gueller, though, is four — as in 4-7, the Bengals’ record last season. They upset Nevada, an FBS school, 30-28, and beat Cal Poly to improve to 3-2 after five games, but lost five of their last six.
Still, the Bengals found positives in the season and improved on their two-win 2016 campaign.
“I think we set the building blocks moving forward. We’d been in close games, but a lot of our games weren’t close by the fourth quarter in prior seasons,” Tanner said. “Learning how to be in close games was the biggest thing I think we could take from last season, so I think it was just a turnaround step for us as a program.”
That’s part of the goal for his fifth and final year in black and orange.
“I just want to be a part of something,” he said, “to feel like we helped turn ISU around and built a program that’s going to contend for years to come would be something to be proud of.”
The bigger goal, though, is the Big Sky championship.
“With how hard we’ve been working, and having been here five years with these guys, we want to win the Big Sky,” he said. “I don’t like to think about anything other than that, so I think a successful season would be getting into the playoffs and having a shot at the Big Sky title come November.”
To that end he’s been spending lots of time in the film room with first-year offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter hammering out the Xs and Os.
“He just eats it up. He’s a football guy, a football junkie,” Mitch said. “We can’t even watch a football game anymore as fans — he’s got to pause it, rewind it. … It’s fun to live with him and watch him eat up football like he does.”
Tanner graduates in the spring, but doesn’t want to leave football behind — whether it’s catching on at the professional level or landing as a graduate assistant coach.
“If he has a good season, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t (keep playing). He’s a big kid, big body, with a great arm, and that definitely should be a goal on his list,” Mitch said. “I think that realistically if he has a good season and wants to play at another level, he has the opportunity to do it.”
If his junior-season numbers are any indication, though, he could stay on the field. Tanner hit 188 of 325 passes for 2,754 yards with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2017.
“Football has been, in all reality, the thing I’ve loved the most since I was little,” Tanner said. “I don’t want to get out of the game. I don’t see myself doing something else and having as much enjoyment in my life.”
He got a chance to try something else this summer, spending June and July painting houses in Pocatello. The experience gave him a new respect for blue-collar work and a new appreciation for the game, though his older brother joked that football may be a better career path.
“If he painted houses like he plays quarterback he’d probably get a pretty good paying job, I think,” Mitch said. “And if he plays quarterback like he paints houses he might be out of one.”
The Bengals were picked 12th out of 13 teams in the preseason Big Sky Conference coaches poll. With the Gueller brothers and star running back James Madison back in the starting lineup, and coach Rob Phenicie returning for his second season, they’re hoping to buck that expectation.
“That’s kind of not where you want to be picked, but it’s better to be picked low and finish higher than you’d been picked,” Mitch said. “I think it’s going to be disappointing if we don’t win a conference championship, or have a winning season. That’s everybody’s goal and that’s kind of what we expect here.”
The Bengals open the season at home, in Holt Arena, on Aug. 31, with Western State Colorado University visiting. After a Week 2 bye they’ll play the University of California in Berkeley on Sept. 15, on the Pac-12 network, before opening Big Sky play at the University of North Dakota on Sept. 22.
Their closest game to Lewis County will be Nov. 3, when Idaho State plays at Portland State University. The regular season wraps up at home on Nov. 17, against Weber State — though they’re hoping a playoff run keeps things going a little longer to delay their inevitable last game together.
“It’s going to suck, not having him around, not having his leadership, and just the connection we have when we play and work together,” Mitch said. “It’s going to suck for sure, but it’ll be a new challenge, for sure, but I’m going to miss him, without a doubt.”