Nolan Saraceni is on the short list of the state’s best high school running backs, along with standouts like Helena Capital’s Gunnar Brekke and Fairview’s Cody Vitt.
The same could have been said last year, except for one minor detail -- Saraceni was not Billings Senior’s starting running back. The senior speedster played wide receiver as a junior because Chad Newell -- Billings Senior’s all-time leading rusher with more than 3,000 yards -- was in the backfield.
“My mind was always on running back, but when you have Chad Newell there’s not much you can do,” said Saraceni with a grin during the Broncs’ practice on Wednesday. “Chad was the man. He’s the best running back we’ve ever had here and I learned a lot from him.
“I went to where the team needed me, which was receiver. I think it helped me to learn another position like that, but I’m definitely glad to be back (at running back).”
The Broncs are certainly glad to have him there, too. The 5-foot-11, 195-pounder has rushed for 334 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games of the season, helping Senior to a 1-1 record.
Saraceni will be looking to continue his hot start Friday night when the Broncs host Missoula Sentinel (1-1) in their home opener, a 7 p.m. kickoff at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium.
Senior coach Chris Murdock got a glimpse of Saraceni’s potential last year when he rushed for 552 yards and three TDs in limited action as Newell’s backup. He also had a school-record 95-yard kickoff return for a TD in last year’s season opener, breaking the previous mark of 85 yards set by Josh Hagstrom in 2009 and Jim Heine in 1954.
“Nolan has the whole package as a running back,” said Murdock, who’s in his first year as the Broncs’ coach. “He’s fast, he’s strong and he runs hard. You don’t expect a guy to be that fast at 195 pounds.
“The best way to describe Nolan is he’s just hard to tackle. One guy is not gonna get him down.”
The folks at Senior have known about Saraceni’s explosive speed for a while. But the entire state became aware when he won the 100- and 200-meter dash titles at the State AA track meet in May.
Though he didn’t enter the state meet with the top times in either event, Saraceni said his football mentality might have helped him in the cold, windy, rainy conditions in Butte.
“It felt like football weather … I think that definitely helped me,” he said. “Some of the other guys weren’t liking the conditions too much, but it just pushed me to run harder. I was going to give 100 percent and nothing less, and it worked out for me.”
Saraceni said his success at the state track meet motivated him to train even harder for the football season. In doing so, he struck up a great relationship with his offensive linemen.
“Nolan is one of the strongest guys on the team,” said senior tackle Kylan Putman. “He’s an animal in the weight room and he never stops working. He was in there with us pretty much every day this summer.
“It’s a lot of fun to block for a guy like Nolan, because he’s talented plus he’s one of the most humble guys I’ve ever met. Every time he touches the ball, he just needs that one inch of daylight and he’s got a chance to bust a big play. That’s our job to get him that daylight.”
“Those guys do a great job … they’re the reason I’m able to get my yards and my stats,” said Saraceni. “They work great together as a unit … I just have to go where I’m supposed to go, and the hole is usually there for me.”
Saraceni, who also starts at linebacker for the Broncs, said he’s excited to see how far the team can go this season.
“We had a rough game last week (a 42-13 loss to Helena Capital), but we learned a lot,” he said. “We get better every day and every week in practice, and that’s what it takes. The seniors are committed to doing that.
“We want to get back to the playoffs and just take it game-by-game from there … hopefully all the way to the championship game.”