MISSOULA — As a minor-league pitcher, Idaho State’s Mitch Gueller wasn't one to give up a home run often.
As a wide receiver now for the Bengals, one of the things he does best is serve as a home-run threat catching the deep ball.
Gueller, whose Bengals face Montana at 1 p.m. Saturday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, has gone from a failed first-round MLB draft pick to an All-American wide receiver who’s poised to become Idaho State’s all-time receiving leader.
It’s a transformation that wouldn’t have been possible without people believing in Gueller, who was away from football for half a decade. Equally important was his belief in himself and him learning lessons from his time in baseball rather than imploding when his first dream failed.
“There were some times in baseball if I wasn’t performing well that I got pretty down on myself and mad at my performance, whether it be just how I did that day or how things were going in general,” Gueller told 406mtsports.com in a phone call.
“From that, I just took that after losing that opportunity you have to enjoy those moments and you have to enjoy what you do every single day. I tried to take that to here and enjoy being a college football player every single day that I’m given the opportunity to do so because you never know when it’s going to end and when it’s going to be your last play out there.
“So, I really just try focusing on enjoying every single moment that I’m given.”
Gueller, who will turn 26 on Nov. 10, is one of the elder statesmen in the Bengals’ locker room, which has several players who went on church missions before attending college. He does rock a bald head and a beard, the former because of hair loss, after pitching with a mustache and long hair that’d stick out of the back of his ballcap.
Gueller’s teammates have jokingly nicknamed him “Grandpa,” which he laughs about. They do respect him enough to have elected him as a team captain coming into the season.
With life experiences of working to put food on the table, Gueller’s maturity has been key in his ascension and sustained success at Idaho State. His 6-foot-3, 224-pound frame, hand-eye coordination to make catches, and understanding of how to get good releases and create separation haven’t hurt either.
“I think he’s underestimated,” Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie said. “He’s one of those guys that you look on film, and he doesn’t look that fast. Then all of a sudden on game day, it’s like, ‘Holy cow, that guy’s faster than we thought.’
“He’s a big, physical guy. He weighs about 225 pounds and he doesn’t have an ounce of fat on him. Hopefully, we’d like to think that would be tough for opposing secondary guys to cover. In my opinion, he has great hand-eye skills. I think that’s due to him playing baseball for so long.”
Gueller’s journey from failed baseball player to potential football record holder is one that seemed unthinkable on May 12, 2016, when he was cut by the Philadelphia Phillies after toiling in the minor leagues for five seasons. Selected 54th overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, the right-handed pitcher passed up an opportunity to play baseball at Washington State and made it as high as Class A, posting a 19-20 career record with a 4.52 ERA in 52 appearances and 48 starts. He gave up only nine home runs in 231 innings.
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Tanner Gueller, Mitch’s younger brother and then an Idaho State quarterback, flew to Lakewood, New Jersey, to help Mitch pack up his apartment. They made the 44-hour drive west and ended up about 11 hours east of their Rochester, Washington, hometown in Pocatello, Idaho, where then-Bengals head coach Mike Kramer had offered Mitch a walk-on spot.
At that time in 2016, Gueller was five years removed from playing football (2011) and seven from playing wide receiver (2009). He was a quarterback as a high school junior and senior.
“It hits pretty hard spending five years chasing a dream and then getting told it’s no longer a reality,” said Gueller, a finance and accounting double major who gets most of his schooling paid for by the Major League Baseball Scholarship Program.
“I was lucky enough to have coach Kramer offer me a position. Then the support from my brother and my family has been instrumental in helping make sure I land on my feet after losing that opportunity in baseball. I’ve just been really fortunate.”
Snagging deep balls like an outfielder, Gueller has averaged 19.6 yards on 143 career catches. With 22 touchdown grabs, he’s averaging a score every 6.5 receptions.
Last year, Gueller ranked fourth in the FCS with 114.5 receiving yards per game and ninth in the nation with 20.3 yards per reception while catching balls from Tanner, who graduated and is now an offensive assistant for Idaho State.
Mitch’s performances helped him earn third-team All-American honors from Hero Sports. It also helped Idaho State go 6-5 to post its first winning season since 2014 and its second since 2004.
“Just to see the whole program get to where we’re competitive rather than getting stomped on every weekend is a big factor,” Phenicie said. “The last two years, Mitch has basically helped coach the young guys because he understands everything. There’s some days in practice I don’t say two words to him because he’s doing everything right.”
This year, Gueller has catches of 45 and 30 yards. The Bengals have eight plays of 30 or more yards, with Tanner Conner tallying four and Mikey Dean getting two.
Gueller is just 56 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time leader, piling up 2,808 career receiving yards with at least eight games remaining. The record isn't something he'll think about too much as his accomplishment.
The former pitcher who had to rely on his defense behind him on the diamond is quick to credit every other position group on the offense with helping him even be in this position.
“It’s just an honor to be on that list with a bunch of great receivers at Idaho State University,” Gueller said. “This record means a lot just for the team; I think it’s kind of a team record.
“There’s a lot more work to be done. Our focus is on other things as far as trying to win ballgames and stuff like that. It’s just one of those things later on you can look back on and is a cool thing to have achieved.”