Jace Sternberger has already made it a habit of wearing numbers made famous by former Green Bay Packers. Organized team activities began this week and the rookie tight end was donning No. 87, most recently worn by Jordy Nelson. His first introduction to most Packers fans came the day after he was drafted, however, when he tweeted out a picture of him wearing a different icon’s jersey number.
— Jace Sternberger (@_Jstern) April 27, 2019
In between episodes of wearing jerseys made famous by franchise icons, the 6-foot-4 tight end took a somewhat circuitous route to the NFL. Two Power 5 stints segmented by a JUCO year later, though, he could be the vaunted pass-catching tight end Packers fans have been clamoring for over the better part of the last decade.
Sternberger isn’t the first NFL player to come from Kingfisher, Oklahoma, a town of about 4,000 people an hour northwest of Oklahoma City. Linebacker Curtis Lofton, who played for three teams in eight years, also hails from Kingfisher. Lofton’s path to the pros was somewhat more traditional. He was a top-100 high school player who went to a traditional college powerhouse (Oklahoma), was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a senior and then began his pro career.
Sternberger didn’t have quite the same adulation coming out of high school. The 17th-ranked player in the state of Oklahoma, he received just one Power 5 offer, and while it was another Big 12 school, it was hardly the blue blood that Oklahoma is.
Division I, Round 1
In 2015 the Kansas Jayhawks were in the midst of the worst stretch for a college football in recent memory. Charlie Weis had just been fired after going 6-22 in less than two and a half seasons in Lawrence, and interim head coach Clint Bowen led the team to just one win in their last eight games. The Turner Gill era had been a disaster prior to Weis.
Then enter David Beaty, a wide receivers coach and ace recruiter from Texas A&M who was hired on Dec. 5, 2015 to lead KU. Just nine days later, Sternberger committed.
The Beaty era at Kansas was an unmitigated disaster, with on-field results worse than those of his predecessors. One of the many flaws Beaty exhibited while leading the Jayhawks was his inability to find consistent and productive personnel groupings.
Sternberger, it became apparent, wasn’t going to fit in with what Beaty tried to accomplish offensively. After redshirting in 2015, he caught just one pass for five yards in 2016.
He left the program following that year, winding up at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, hoping a year at a junior college could reignite his Division I career. It worked. He tied for the team lead with six touchdown receptions in 2017 and had the second-highest yards per reception average on the team.
His lone season in Miami, Oklahoma was enough to get him ranked as the 38th-best JUCO prospect in the class of 2018 by the 247Sports composite. That was enough to get him back on the radar of several major programs, and he even took a visit to Boise State.
Instead of heading north again, though, Sternberger went south and stayed in the central U.S., becoming one of the first players to commit to then-new Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher. Fisher was hired by the Aggies on Dec. 1, 2017. One week later Sternberger took an official visit to College Station, and just two days later he committed to Fisher.
From there, the story becomes a little more traditional for Sternberger. He put up strong numbers in his one season in College Station, with 48 receptions for 832 yards and 10 touchdowns, all of which led the team. He forewent the final year of his college eligibility to enter the NFL draft, and after being selected 75th overall he’ll start his career catching passes from Aaron Rodgers.
It’s been a winding road for Sternberger to get to this point, but it’s hard to imagine that through all the ups and downs he could have landed in a better opportunity to start his pro career. And while the correlation is circumstantial and biased at best, it’s hard to not compare the success or lack thereof for each stop on his tour around college athletics.
Beaty went 6-42 in four seasons at Kansas and was relieved of his duties after the 2018 season.
Northeastern Oklahoma A&M went 9-3 in 2017.
Texas A&M went 9-4 in 2018, finished 16th in the final AP poll of the season and reached the Gator Bowl.
The Packers finally have a young, pass-catching tight end and Jace Sternberger ended up in a position to be an immediate contributor in the NFL. It took a while for his path to become clear, but his trials and tribulations have prepared him to battle right away for a team in win-now mode.