North Dakota State football coach Craig Bohl knew he was looking at a player with a bright future when he first saw Kyle Steffes taking handoffs at his first spring practice. Bohl also knew the redshirt freshman had some work to do if he wanted to improve his game.
"I really thought he had some natural running ability," Bohl said. "I didn't feel like he was a complete player as far as his blocking assignments. There were certain times when he didn't take care of the football enough to withstand the pounding of (NCAA) Division I players."
Four years later, Bohl has watched Steffes transform from a freshman with flashes of brilliance that needed to be controlled, into a hard-nosed 5-foot-11, 200-pound running back who will enter his third season as a starter when the Bison host Concordia-St. Paul on Aug. 31.
"What has occurred is that he's improved each year," Bohl said. "I think he's a complete back now. He certainly is a very, very elusive runner, combining with power."
Now a fifth-year senior, the former Dickinson Trinity standout said he has a good relationship with his coach, even though he is one of the few players remaining for the previous coaching regime.
"He's world class at what he does," Steffes said of his coach. "He gets motivation out of guys."
Likewise, Bohl said Steffes has become a one of the Bison's most trustworthy offensive weapons.
Steffes' name is set to become a mainstay in NDSU's career rushing record books. He's seventh on NDSU's all-time rushing yards list with 2,702 career yards and is in position to move into second on the chart, just behind current NFL free agent and former Bison standout Lamar Gordon.
In addition to his rushing prowess, Steffes is a seasoned veteran who has, in just five seasons, seen the Bison go from a Division II powerhouse suffering their worst season in 27 years, to an annual competitor in Division I-AA.
Steffes was barely into the beginning of his freshman year when NDSU announced it would make the transition from Division II to Division I in all sports except football, which would enter the Division I-AA ranks.
"You have mixed feelings right away," Steffes said of NDSU's transition. "Are we going to compete? What conference are we in?"
However, Steffes and the rest of the NDSU team took the transition to Division I-AA as an opportunity to improve the way it plays football. It has shown.
"It was a smooth transition," Steffes said. "We all got a chance to prove ourselves and show him what we can do. That was kind of when I got my name on the map."
Bohl entered NDSU the winter of Steffes' true freshman year. With the seasoned coach came the West Coast offense. With the offense, Steffes and the Bison running backs had a chance to run the ball frequently while also contributing to an improved short-passing game.
Receiving is one aspect of Steffes' game Bohl said has grown by leaps and bounds since he arrived at NDSU.
"He's developed his pass blocking and pass receiving skills," Bohl said. "I think he's really improved his pass catching."
The added dimension means the two-time all-Great West Football Conference first-team running back could have a chance at competing for an All-American bid with a strong season.
Current Chicago Bears assistant Bob Babich recruited Steffes after three monster seasons for the Trinity Titans, during which he helped win his team back-to-back North Dakota Class 2A state championships in 2000 and 2001. Even though Steffes never had a chance to play under Babich, the two have kept in contact slightly since Babich's departure through Bobby Babich, Bob's son and a cornerback in Steffes' recruiting class.
"The thing I always liked about Kyle was not only was he athletic, I always felt like he was a tough guy also," Babich said. "Not only could he run the ball outside, he had to be able to run it inside also. We felt like he was a well-rounded football player."
Steffes redshirted his first season and Babich bolted the Bison after a 2-8 season - NDSU's first losing season since 1975's 2-7 finish - to take the open linebackers coach spot with the NFL's St. Louis Rams.
Babich believes if Steffes continues to improve, he has a chance to garner a few looks from NFL scouts.
"I would assume that Kyle is on the radar if he has a great year," Babich said. "It'd be great if he got an opportunity. I know that's something that he wants."
Green Bay Packers' Central Plains college scout Lenny McGill said Kyle Steffes is one of several players on his list to scout this season.
"There's been plenty of I-AA guys that have gone onto the league," McGill said. "You can never ignore the small school guys."
McGill added that Bohl's West Coast offense has been intriguing to several NFL scouts in the past few seasons and has helped other NDSU players get drafted or signed as free agents.
"This guy (Steffes) probably will be better for what the NFL (wants)," McGill said. "A lot of teams run that offense."
Steffes, who is a business administration major, said he'd love to find a way to take his career to the next level if he can.
"It really depends on how this year goes," Steffes said. "There is a couple teams looking at me and are possibly interested," Steffes said. "I'm not going to think about it. It puts a lot of pressure on me."