SIDNEY, Iowa — Bryson Duncan doesn’t look that imposing, and that’s exactly what he wants you to think.
Sidney’s 5-foot-8, 160-pound senior running back isn’t just comfortable with being misjudged, he prefers it.
“To me, it was always motivation.” Duncan said. “Nothing satisfied me more than being able to put a hit on somebody that makes everybody go, ‘Wow, that little kid just hit that hard.’
“I like it when people underestimate me.”
With his team ranked sixth in Eight-Man and closing in on its first undefeated regular season in five years, no one is underestimating Duncan these days.
They’re too busy trying to stop him.
Through eight games, Duncan has the third-most rushing yards in Eight-Man, and is 10th in the state with 1,469 yards on 146 carries with 24 touchdowns.
Going into the final week of the regular season, 10 players in the division have amassed 1,000 rushing yards. Duncan reached it in Week 5.
“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the season, I would have said that that was a reasonable goal at the end of the year,” Duncan said, “but not five games in.”
It’s a big difference from his first year with the program. Duncan, who lives in Hamburg, enrolled at Sidney after the Nishnabotna School District was dissolved in 2016. As a junior, he led the team with 750 rushing yards on 105 attempts, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.
The Cowboys went 6-3 and finished just outside of the playoffs. It was a promising turnaround from a 2-7 season the year before, but Duncan felt like he and the team were capable of more.
During the offseason, they hit the weights.
“I was a really small guy,” Duncan said, “so I felt I needed to pack on the pounds and the muscle if I wanted to contribute the way that I felt like I could.”
When the season rolled around, Duncan was bigger and stronger, and so were his teammates, particularly the team’s young but daunting offensive line.
Between center Brock Shirley, tackles Tim Hensley and Brady Lorimor, and tight ends Thomas Wilson and Caleb Behrends, the Cowboys’ O-line weighs an average of 231, and all but Hensley stands between 6-1 and 6-3. Hensley is a senior, but Shirley, Lorimor and Behrends are all juniors, and Wilson is only a sophomore.
Longtime coach Donnie Sears said Duncan benefits from both his and his linemen’s size.
“He’s able to stick behind that big line and I think it’s hard for that defense to see where he is sometimes,” he said. “He’s patient, lets the blocks develop, and he’s one of the hardest runners we’ve had here at Sidney.”
Now, when Duncan gets hit, he’s able to cash in on all the time he put in the weight room, stretching out yardage after contact.
“He’s got great balance, great vision, and he’s got speed and conditioning,” Sears said, “so he’s kind of got all the attributes you need in a running back.”
There is also another element at play.
“A lot of people say that because I’m shorter, it’s harder for them to tackle (me),” Duncan said. “They’re always, like, ‘Wow, you always get so low on us.’ Our linebackers coach always preaches to us pad level — lowest man wins, so I use that to my advantage.”
To Sears, Duncan’s most impressive performances of the season have come when his team needed him the most. When the Cowboys hosted Exira-EHK — a team they’ve generally struggled against — in Week 3, Duncan carried the ball 28 times for 209 yards and a trio of touchdowns as the Cowboys won by 36 points.
A week later, he racked up 252 yards on 26 carries en route to a 45-35 triumph over Eight-Man perennial power Fremont-Mills.
“You carry the ball 28 times, that’s just a war horse,” Sears said. “That’s somebody who says, ‘Put the ball in my hands and I’ll do the work.’ ”
The increased attention Duncan has garnered from other teams has allowed fellow ball carriers Cody Dupre (12.6 yards per carry), Cameron Whitehead (7.6 yards per carry) and Tate Thompson (7 yards per carry) to make an impact, as well.
On Friday, the Cowboys wrap up the regular season at Clarinda Academy (2-6).
Next week, they’ll host a yet-to-be-determined district runner-up and make their first playoff appearance since 2014.
During Sears’ 19 years at the helm, the Cowboys have gone 117-72 and made it to the playoffs eight times. But they’ve yet to make a run to the UNI-Dome.
“We’re proud of our program,” Sears said, “but we haven’t reached the pinnacle yet.”