Having already succeeded in making the move from tight end to right tackle two years earlier, Sebastian Gutierrez was confident flipping over to left tackle would have a similar result.
But then Minot State, a Division II school in northwest North Dakota, traveled to play at Augustana (S.D.) College in the 2021 season opener. All those practice reps during the 2020 season, when the Beavers’ season was cancelled by coronavirus? It didn’t compare.
“I’ll tell you what, the first game was definitely a struggle,” Gutierrez said in a phone interview talking about the 49-0 loss. “But after that, I think I was decent.”
The Broncos saw something more than decent when watching Gutierrez’s game tape, enough to sign him as an undrafted free agent ahead of this weekend’s rookie camp.
Gutierrez is the first Minot State player to join an NFL team since Randy Hedberg … in 1977.
Listed at 6-foot-6, 295, Gutierrez added 105 pounds during his college career. The Broncos likely signed him as a nod to his experience in the outside zone running scheme and his pass protection.
“He’s very, very smooth and very in control,” said Danny Friend, Minot State’s offensive line coach last year and now an offensive quality control assistant at Indiana. “With his athleticism, he’s able to get himself out of bad positions quickly and once he gets his hands on somebody, they usually don’t go anywhere.”
To get somewhere in football, Gutierrez had to move 1,000 miles from home.
Gutierrez, 23, grew up in Pasco, Wash., located 215 miles southeast of Seattle. As a high school senior, he quickly rebuffed Minot State’s initial reach-out.
“I dismissed it (saying), ‘Minot is too far, I want to stay on the West Coast,’” he said. “But things happened and Minot offered more (scholarship) money, plain and simple. I never took a visit there. I ended up taking a huge leap of faith.”
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Suffice to say, there are no direct flights from Pasco to Minot, but United offers a leg with a layover in Denver. Gutierrez was off to North Dakota to play tight end for the Beavers.
Minot State’s athletic department competed at the NAIA level until transitioning to NCAA Division II and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in 2012. Gutierrez settled into the small-town pace; Minot State’s enrollment in 2020 was fewer than 3,000 students.
“I have always liked the slower, laid-back lifestyle,” he said. “Not a whole lot going on. You just focus on school and sports and that’s it.”
When Gutierrez enrolled in 2016, he was 190 pounds. He added 30 to 40 pounds during his redshirt year. He caught five passes for 32 yards in nine games as a redshirt freshman in ’17.
Entering the ’18 season, Gutierrez’s road to the Broncos really began.
“The offensive line coach took an interest and said, ‘Hey, we need tackles. You’re pretty decent at blocking. You’ll be on the field for every play,’” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, that sounds cool.’
“I started taking tackle reps in the spring of 2018 and that fall, I was the starting right tackle.”
Why did Gutierrez take so well to tackle after never playing the position?
“I trained as a receiver/tight end my whole life and I developed the footwork and quick feet and agility,” he said. “On the offensive line, you face a lot of guys who can change directions fast and the way I’m built directly correlates to (blocking) that.”
Gutierrez played right tackle in 2018-19 and the Beavers’ 2020 season was cancelled because of the coronavirus. Minot State, though, practiced the entire fall, at which point he shifted over to left tackle.
“I started taking of lot of reps so I had a year to perfect my footwork to make sure it wasn’t a big difference (moving from right tackle),” he said.
Gutierrez settled in after the season opener. The Beavers struggled, finishing 2-9 (outscored 40.4 to 18.6), but he was named all-league.
“I started working on a lot of different moves and techniques that I had picked up and made the best of our season,” he said.
Gutierrez would pick up tips via homework assignments by Friend.
“We would watch NFL (games) and used (Friend’s) app and be tasked with watching our position,” Gutierrez said.
Friend took advantage of Gutierrez’s versatility, moving him to left guard to finish last year.
“I thought it was two of his most physical games,” Friend said.
Friend said “20-some” NFL teams visited Minot State’s program last year, including the Broncos.
“It was, ‘Who’s going to be in this week?’” he said. “For guys at that level, it doesn’t happen a whole lot so it was cool for obviously Sebastian, but some of our other kids to compete in front of NFL scouts.”
Gutierrez said he didn’t hear much from the Broncos until the week leading into the draft, when it turned into “heavy contact.”
Gutierrez knows about the steep odds he faces trying to jump from Division II to the NFL.
“I’m going to do everything that is expected of me,” he said. “I’m going to work hard in the weight room and do all of the little things because I have a (learning) curve ahead of me.”
Said Friend: “He’s always known it was going to be an uphill battle and that’s what he thrives on.”