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Last year, Newton's Bo Dee Steber saw some starting time, mostly thanks to the physical tools he carried.

The 6-foot-4, 285-pound tackle outmatched most defensive ends, but there wasn't always the drive to match the imposing size.

"Honestly, I think where I am now can't be compared to what I played like last year," Steber said. "I didn't hit very hard, I didn't came off the ball quickly. I didn't play to my potential."

Steber is sort of a microcosm of what the Eagles have morphed into this year. They had many of the same players starting -- for example, nine returned on offense -- but it took a year of building up. The Eagles made the playoffs for the first time in seven years last year, but ran into Robinson in Week 10.

"I think last year, playing Robinson in the playoffs, it was more of a feeling of we finally got the monkey off our back," Newton coach Jason Fulton said.

The missing weight explains what's happened to the rushing game.

Behind an offensive line that returned three starters, Mitch Bierman has morphed into one of the most feared running backs. Through 10 games, he's averaging a first down (11.6 yards) every handoff. With his 183 carries, 2,119 yards and 33 TDs, there isn't much left to complete for the junior.

"Right now, Mitch probably holds every rushing record we have at our school," Fulton said.

Fulton said Bierman, the leading rusher in the H&R area, has become a little more patient running the ball. But once he finds a seam, he uses his speed -- he's part of Newton's sprint relays -- and physicality.

"I think it's the way he trusts the offense line. He runs full sprint at the hole," Steber said. "With Mitch, he's very good at reading blocks and taking it inside or outside."

It helps that fullback Kaleb Wittgan returns as his lead blocker and the offensive line has solidified around the three returning starters. On the other side of the line from Steber is another massive tackle in Nick Cartright, and Seth Willis, Gabe Fulton and Brad Pethtel hold down the interior.

It's a strange group -- not because of their talent, but their age. Steber is the only senior on a line with two juniors and two sophomores.

"They had a tremendous offseason, they kind of came together to work hard and work in the weight room," Fulton said. "It made a big a difference and I think our offensive scheme changed a little bit."

That's come from new offensive coordinator Brian Halsey, who came to Newton after 15 years leading Charleston, with seven of those years making the playoffs.

Not only is this a special group for Fulton because of what they've accomplished, it's a group he's seen grow up. At center is Fulton's son, Gabe, who's a sophomore. Fulton's been coaching Newton since Gabe was a first-grader, and it's made this year stand out a bit more.

"It is kind of neat to see the kids who were running around my house when they were little, now they're all part of this team," Fulton said. "It's a lot of fun coaching those guys because I've watched them grow up, and now for them to be a part of a very special year, just really happy for them."

Newton's now entering territory that hasn't been touched since legendary coach Bob Horst's last couple of years. The Eagles take on Monticello today in hopes of making the quarterfinals.

The Sages' spread isn't a foreign concept to Newton -- it's what Marshall ran and it's what they prepared for all last week against Sullivan-Okaw Valley.

But Fulton knows Monticello is a different kind of beast with Brandon Wildman running the offense.

"Monticello's quarterback, he's," Fulton paused for emphasis, "he's the real deal. Big all-around kid, recruited by Division I."

Newton will also have to handle a dangerous and deep receiving corps as well, but Fulton feels like he has a secondary to match. Nate Meinhart leads the team with six interceptions, and Fulton said he can hang with anyone.

"He's a tremendous talent and he's tough to throw against," he said.

It'll be a good test for a Newton defense that's allowing 16.2 points per game.

And if a win comes, so does another layer of respect for a program on the rise.

"I think we did accomplish and prove to some people, Newton football is back to where it was."

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adow@herald-review.com|(217) 421-6978

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