Thomas Sperbeck grew up the son of a quarterback. Then he became one, learning to be calculating and cool in pressure situations.
Tanner Vallejo was raised a linebacker in a family full of them, in attack mode in everything he did.
Now that their sophomore seasons at Boise State are complete, Sperbeck of Jesuit High School and Vallejo of Nevada Union return to class Monday riding a wave of momentum, hungry for more.
Sperbeck arrived in Idaho as a projected safety despite excelling at quarterback for Jesuit. He switched to receiver and went from a reserve player earlier this season to budding star. Sperbeck has been mentored by his father, Marshall, who played quarterback at Valley High and Nevada and coached at Sacramento State for seven seasons. The elder Sperbeck urged his son to get on the field any way he could, to seize any opportunity.
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He did. On Sept. 27, Sperbeck replaced injured Matt Miller, the program’s all-time receptions leader, and the Broncos never broke stride. Sperbeck caught 51 passes for 877 yards and three touchdowns. In the 38-30 Fiesta Bowl victory over Arizona on Wednesday, Sperbeck earned Offensive MVP honors after catching a career-high 12 passes for 199 yards, including nine for 164 in the first half when Boise State rolled up 31 points.
Eleven of his catches went for first downs.
“I’m just trying to make plays,” Sperbeck said.
Vallejo adheres to the same philosophy. He was named Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP after recording 14 tackles, giving him a team-best 100 on the season. Vallejo moved from inside linebacker to outside linebacker this season to bolster the defense. He also earned Defensive MVP honors in the Mountain West championship game against Fresno State. Boise State closed with a nine-game winning streak.
“We got on a roll,” Vallejo said.
Football is in Vallejo’s genes. He engaged in many living-room rumbles growing up in Penn Valley with older brothers Cody and Zach and father, Rick, with the couch serving as the end zone. Vallejo credits his older brothers, both former players, for “making me who I am,” and says he finds inspiration in his younger sibling.
Hunter Vallejo, 14, was diagnosed with brain cancer as a baby. He has outlived expectations. Though he doesn’t play football, Hunter is nonstop energy in baseball and basketball. And when Hunter bench-pressed 225 pounds, he had to send big brother a video.
“My biggest motivation is my little brother,” Vallejo told the Idaho Statesman earlier this season. “He’s always been my motivation and he always will be. When I’m out there playing, I’m playing with him on my back.”
Vallejo was sold on Boise State beyond football during his recruitment. While meeting then-Broncos coach Chris Petersen, now coaching Washington, the Vallejo family learned of a unique connection.
Petersen’s youngest son, Sam, was diagnosed with the same rare brain cancer as Hunter. Sam Petersen survived and is a healthy 16-year old high school student-athlete in Bellevue, Wash.
In the summer before his senior season at Jesuit, Sperbeck attended summer camps as a receiver, knowing there wasn’t a lot of room in college for 6-foot quarterbacks.
Army offered him a chance to play the position. Colorado State wanted him as an “athlete,” and San Jose State offered a scholarship to play receiver.
Sperbeck said he “loved everything about Boise State, the school and the program,” and signed with the Broncos. Though he didn’t have a catch in his team’s first 41/2 games. Sperbeck stepped in and adjusted to his new role as receiver, learning how to run routes, how to adjust to the ball and secure it when taking a big hit.
“I wish I could play a few more years with this guy because he’s pretty special,” Boise State senior quarterback Grant Hedrick said after Wednesday’s game.
Added Boise State coach Bryan Harsin: “Thomas has been making those types of plays throughout the season. (He made) some tremendous catches, some big-time moments.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.