BEMIDJI -- It’s a time-honored tradition in high school football -- top players contributing to their team on offense, defense and even special teams, trying to find any way to help the team win.

This year's Bemidji High School football team is no exception, and two players who primarily started out as defenders have become increasingly integral parts of the offensive gameplan. And it has paid off, with both linebacker/running back/punter Barrick Nelson and safety/receiver Caden Bolte contributing crucial plays and helping the Lumberjacks achieve victories.

“Number one, they're great football players,” head coach Bryan Stoffel said. “And they're great football players because they understand the game. And their football IQ is really high for the both of them, which allows us to put them in spots to utilize them on both sides of the football because they can handle it.

“What they give us is another option to get the football to. With Caden, he's done a fantastic job in the passing game. He just has a natural knack to high point a ball and to be able to adjust to a ball as it's in the air. And so that aspect of his game has really helped us take our passing game to the next level. Barrick is a hard-nosed running back, little bigger kid. When we're down on the goal line, we can take advantage of his size and his physicality when we need some tough yards.”

Bemidji junior Barrick Nelson (42) scores a touchdown in the first half against Buffalo on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji junior Barrick Nelson (42) scores a touchdown in the first half against Buffalo on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

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Not only has Nelson added some punch to the Jacks’ goal-line packages, he’s showcased some fleet feet on special teams. When a planned punt resulted in a fumbled snap during the homecoming game against Brainerd, Nelson picked the ball up and had the presence of mind to tuck it in and scamper for a first down.

“The snap was low, and then I picked it up and started running,” Nelson said. “And then I see Stoffel was telling me, 'Kick it!' But I still ran with it, and I got the first down by a yard.”

What would that conversation have been like if Nelson didn’t convert?

"Probably just, ‘Next time, kick it,’” Nelson said.

It did move the chains, though, so Stoffel wasn’t complaining.

“Well, it got us a first down the one time when we needed it,” he said. “So I guess it paid for itself there. But the main thing is that they're both just great athletes. And so when you put those types of kids in those positions, naturally they're going to be able to answer the call if they need to. And so they both have done that every time we put them in a different position.”

Bemidji senior Caden Bolte (24) gets a big hit on Alexandria's Kristen Hoskins after Hoskins' first-quarter catch on Sept. 10, 2021, in Alexandria. (Eric Morken / Forum News Service)
Bemidji senior Caden Bolte (24) gets a big hit on Alexandria's Kristen Hoskins after Hoskins' first-quarter catch on Sept. 10, 2021, in Alexandria. (Eric Morken / Forum News Service)

Bolte has bolstered the Lumberjacks’ passing attack, recording his first career touchdown against Sauk Rapids-Rice while continuing his defensive exploits with an interception the following week against Buffalo.

“I've had a lot of fun. I've been embracing it,” Bolte said. “I love doing it. I would rather play both ways than just one way. It can get a little tiring, but you don't feel it during the game a whole lot. After the game, it hurts a bit more, but during it, it seems a lot more fun. You stay in the game a bit more.”

‘They’ve always been in the plans’

Despite the impact two-way contributors can have, Stoffel said he’s generally wary of thrusting players into those roles right away.

“(Nelson and Bolte are) always going to be a part of what we're doing offensively,” Stoffel said. “We always try to keep guys one way as long as we can to limit the amount of time they're playing and to also develop depth on both sides of the football. But they've always been in the plans at some point. They always have repped both sides of the football (in practice), so it's just a matter of time, not if we were going to use them, but when.”

With both players also contributing on special teams and rarely leaving the field, they and Stoffel have had to manage their time and balance their practice reps to stay healthy and engaged.

“The balance is making sure they're prepared properly in practice, but also monitoring their usage on both sides of the football,” Stoffel said. “So that's where our depth comes into play. And that's why we always try to build depth during the season.”

“It's just a mind process, really,” Nelson added. “You just have to think, every time when you're out there, what position you're really starting to play at. For punter, all I really got to think of is just booting it out there. And then for linebacker, I work on my reads, call my blitzes. And then for running back, I just trust my guards and all the O-linemen that are out in front of me to get that hole.”

The Lumberjacks celebrate in the end zone after junior Barrick Nelson (42) scored the first touchdown against Buffalo on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
The Lumberjacks celebrate in the end zone after junior Barrick Nelson (42) scored the first touchdown against Buffalo on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Bolte admits that his head sometimes swims with the amount of information he has to process when playing multiple positions.

“Playing both sides of the ball isn't a really easy thing, especially when you're basically playing three sides of the ball because they have me on a lot of special teams too,” Bolte said. “So it's a lot of jobs you have to get down, a whole bunch of roles. Because especially (with) the positions I play, there's just a bunch of different roles I have to fill each game.”

But despite the intricacies of navigating so many roles, Bolte and Nelson are thriving under the Friday night lights, and they’ll need to continue doing so to help Bemidji reach its full potential.

“As we get further into the season, you'll see that a little bit more, where you're using guys more both ways,” Stoffel said. “Especially when we get into the playoffs.”

The Lumberjacks wrap up the regular season with a road matchup against St. Cloud Tech at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15, and a home date with Sartell-St. Stephen at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 20.