All eyes have been on Spencer Neugebauer for years.
It comes with the territory of being a star player of both hometown schools for the better part of a decade. He doesn’t view it as pressure, though. It’s more of a privilege to him, as he’s made it a weekly tradition every fall to run past defenders at Joe Quintal Field.
He recognizes the uniqueness of playing college football in his hometown, let alone becoming a star. And as the Dakota Wesleyan University senior runs out of the locker room for the final time today, he doesn’t take for granted the past four years.
“To have hometown support is second to none,” said Neugebauer, who was an all-state running back for Mitchell High School. “It’s always been something that’s been pretty iconic for me. Not a lot of places you can go and play college football in your hometown. ... It’s definitely something honorable and something I’ll always think about for the rest of my life.”
The fans he dazzled through an illustrious career won’t soon forget about his impact either.
His speed in the open field, diving catches and big performances will be ingrained in DWU lore for years. And even if the memories fade, the numbers won’t.
He leaves fourth in program history in receptions (176) and receiving yards (2,351), while also hauling in 15 touchdowns. Neugebauer had a new quarterback to open every year of his DWU career, yet still became a two-time all-conference second-team wideout and first-team kick returner.
“The hope was that he’d turn into one of the best guys we’ve ever had, and I think he’s met those expectations, if not exceeded them,” DWU coach Ross Cimpl said. “… The only thing he hasn’t done is play defense, and to say that wasn’t talked about at times in certain situations would have been a lie, too. He has done everything.”
It’s not an understatement for a player who resembles a chameleon on the football field. He motions all around on the outside, has lined up at running back (342 yards/7 TDs in his career), tight end and even played wildcat quarterback as a sophomore. It’s helped him have a better understanding of the game and given DWU’s offense countless wrinkles, but his most effective spot has always been out wide.
He looks at home at the position he’s occupied for the past four years, one where the Tigers have been able to utilize his versatility. Neugebauer can outrun a secondary, make a tough catch over the middle or use his speed on a jet sweep.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Neugebauer always felt like a natural wide receiver, but in high school, the Kernels needed a running back so he stepped into that role. He established himself as one of the state’s top running backs, becoming the Gatorade South Dakota football player of the year in 2016 as a senior, but Cimpl still recruited him with the idea of moving positions.
“Right away, I had a lot of people ask me: Why the heck are you playing receiver and not running back?” Neugebauer said. “Right away I kind of questioned it, too, but once I realized how much more of a threat I could become on the outside and just run and be free out there, it kind of gave a lot more room for success at receiver.”
Neugebauer said the position change wasn’t hard. He also didn’t feel the pressure of needing to perform in front of a hometown crowd, crediting how welcomed he felt by offensive leaders Dillon Turner, Trevor Wietzema and Hayden Adams.
He spent one year in the wide receiver room with Adams, an All-American, though Neugebauer’s main role at the time was as a slot receiver who caught bubble screens and ran jet sweeps. Still, he soaked in the advice Adams gave him about adjusting to certain situations and overcoming obstacles.
“He was not the most serious guy all the time, but with me, he knew what I could become underneath him,” Neugebauer said. “He took some time out of his way to give me advice and help me along the way to help me become the player I’ve become.”
He became the No. 1 option as a sophomore, but his role is always evolving. It has to be.
Even as teams show double teams and yell “No. 8!” before plays to keep tabs of where he’s lined up, Neugebauer has kept producing. He’s had six quarterbacks in the last three years, but he’s always been a trustworthy target.
“The ability and production we’ve seen from him throughout his whole career, he’s one of the best players to ever play here,” Cimpl said.
He leads NAIA football with 62 receptions this year to go with 654 yards and a career-high eight touchdowns.
“I love throwing to him,” DWU quarterback Zachary Lester said. “... He catches the ball and he does some magical things with the ball in his hands. That’s why he’s ranked nationally. He’s just a baller.”
He’ll likely add more postseason accolades this year, too. Neugebauer is prideful in his accomplishments, though doesn’t obsess daily over making the all-GPAC team.
He’s more focused on building a foundation for the program, and being a mentor for younger players the same way past offensive leaders were to him.
“It’s one of those deals where he brought me under his wing right away,” DWU redshirt-freshman running back Jamin Arend said. “It’s just been awesome picking his ear. He’s a good dude about that. He gets annoyed with me, but he puts up with it.”
“I think everyone looks at Spencer and watches what he does and knows that, ‘When Spencer is around, we need to pay attention and get things right,’ ” Cimpl added. “I think he provides a great example for guys, whether that’s work-ethic-wise or in the media room being able to help guys out, coach guys up and taking guys under his wing.”
Neugebauer plans to graduate in December with a business degree with an agriculture emphasis. He’ll start working at Rock Creek Agronomy in Howard starting in January, while also helping on the family farm.
Even as he departs from Joe Quintal Field for the final time at 1 p.m. today against Concordia (Neb.), he leaves a lasting legacy.
“You never question his work ethic. You never question his ability,” Cimpl said. “He’s had all eyes on him for a long time and I think he’s embraced that. He continues to provide a great example and leadership for our players.”