by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Zimmerman fullback Jeff Mueller had an “Oh, no!” moment last Friday, after turning his ankle playing volleyball in P.E. class, during the day of a game.
“Right before going to the game, I got off the couch and I could barely walk,” he relates. “I thought, Oh, no, I can’t miss the home opener my senior year.”
But Mueller got taped up, took a pill, had his ankle and cleats taped — and pounded for four touchdowns in the 55-14 win over Milaca. He carried 13 times for 109 yards.
“I felt fine once we started playing,” said Mueller, whose zealous approach to weight-lifting probably helps him recover quicker from such dings to his body.
That was the 6-foot, 208-pound senior’s second big game to start the season. He rambled for 148 yards on 18 carries against Albany, scoring twice, including one 41-yard burst, in a 37-22 win. Along with 267 yards, he leads the team with 15 tackles.
Thunder coach Tom Kish said he anticipated a big year from Mueller and so far the fullback/middle linebacker has surpassed expectations.
“Two years ago, he was a skinny 160-pound sophomore, and now he’s 208 pounds and really put together,” said Kish. “It’s from all his hard work in the weight room. He lifts here whenever he can, and goes to the ‘Y’ with his dad, too. Sometimes we have to pull him back and tell him to make sure his body has time to recover.”
Mueller was the team’s second-leading tackler with 81 at inside backer his junior year. He started getting carries late in the year, too, and gained 60 yards in 10 totes in the section finals loss to Annandale.
“I have put on 20 pounds (since last season),” said Mueller. “I had a goal of 208 and that’s about what I am. I want to keep getting bigger, for college football.”
Added muscle clearly has benefits.
“It’s way better being bigger,” he said. “I am more confident, too. I feel like I can get places and beat people.”
Kish enjoys having a bona fide fullback to help wear down defenses. Last year, the Thunder got one TD from the fullback slot. This year, it’s already six.
“It’s the first season we’ve had a true fullback that can really pound the line,” said Kish. “And he has the speed, too, that if he gets open, he can rip off 20 or 30 yards. He can make the cut and go, or run guys over. He loves contact.”
The plays working for Mueller are the dives up the gut behind Mitch Robinson, Cory Jopp and Dustin Neseth in the triple-option.
About Zimmerman’s strong start, Mueller reflected, “All the work we put in, it’s paying off, that’s for sure.”
Along with his teammates, he has high goals after the Thunder got used to winning last year, going 9-2, taking the Granite Ridge title and reaching section finals.
“Definitely, going to the Prep Bowl,” he said. “We’ve got to beat that section this time. And we’ve got to defend our conference title, too, with everybody out to get us this year.”
Mueller doesn’t mind acknowledging a personal goal, too.
“I absolutely would love to get a thousand yards,” he said. “Get at least a hundred every game.”
A one-sport athlete (he played JV basketball last year but doesn’t plan to continue), Mueller mainly just wants to have a blast playing football.
“It’s my senior year, and I am so happy it’s finally here, and I am not going to be happy when it’s over.”
THE MUELLER SCORECARD
Personal file — Age: 17 … Family: parents, Rich and Pam; siblings, Rachel, 15, and Ryan, 12 … Sport: football … Academics: A’s and B’s … College plans: undecided where, football, major undecided
Favorites stuff — Classes: math, P.E. … TV show: “Jersey Shore” … Movie: “Braveheart” …. Food: Old Country Buffet fare … Drink: milk, Gatorade … Team: Steelers … Athlete: Ray Lewis …. Kickback activity: weight-lifting … Would like to visit: Hawaii