Boise State running back Ethan Mikita couldn’t have scripted a better way to start his senior year at Eagle High School, but the story of his final season with the Mustangs took a dark turn.
Mikita scored a 61-yard touchdown on his first rushing attempt of the 2021 season. He looked like he was going to score again on his second carry, but he crumpled to the ground while trying to evade a defender near the goal line.
He stayed in the game but said he knew something was wrong after feeling his right knee buckle again on the next play. Mikita suffered a torn ACL, which ended his season and put his college football career in jeopardy.
“It really sucked, but it’s part of God’s plan, and I think I’m stronger because of what I went through,” Mikita told the Statesman. “It humbled me and made me realize everything goes by so quick, so you have to cherish the moments that matter the most.”
Expectations were high for Mikita’s senior season, Eagle football coach John Hartz said. He earned a starting spot on the varsity team as a sophomore and was named first-team 5A Southern Idaho Conference as a flex player after posting more than 600 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns as a junior.
“Ethan was the leader of the team and watching him go down was brutal for all of us,” Hartz said. “His dreams were so large and we all knew it. He wanted to have an incredible senior season, and you knew it was done right there.”
Mikita didn’t just miss the Mustangs’ run to the 2021 state semifinals. Much of the recruiting interest he worked so hard to earn dried up the moment he tore his ACL. The University of Idaho was the first program to offer him a scholarship, but the coaches stopped calling after his injury, Hartz said.
Boise State and Washington offered preferred walk-on spots late last year, and Mikita said he chose the Broncos after a conversation with Boise State head coach Andy Avalos.
“I always knew I was going to make it somewhere, and I think Boise State is heading in an amazing direction because of coach Avalos,” Mikita said. “His staff really showed they cared when they kept calling after my knee injury.”
Choosing between the Broncos and Huskies wasn’t really that hard, Mikita said. Growing up in Eagle, he religiously followed Boise State football, attending as many home games as he could convince his parents to take him to. He also idolized former Boise State running backs Jay Ajayi and Doug Martin.
“It’s a dream school,” he said. “I grew up watching Boise State, and so did my mom and dad. It’s a dream come true to actually be in this moment.”
It also helped that Boise State has a long history of bringing high school players from Idaho in as walk-ons and giving them the chance to earn scholarships, including linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (Salmon River), who is preparing to begin his fifth season with the Dallas Cowboys.
Running back Tyler Crowe (Skyview), kicker Jonah Dalmas (Rocky Mountain), former tight end Tyler Eiguren (Fruitland) and former edge rusher Dyaln Herberg (Timberline) all joined the team as walk-ons and were put on scholarship the past couple of years.
Mikita is one of six local players who joined the program as walk-ons this year. He’s joined by fellow running back Taylor Marcum (Timberline), linebacker Seth Knothe (Bishop Kelly), wide receiver Hunter Steaker (Rocky Mountain), edge/long snapper Mason Jacobsen (Rocky Mountain) and offensive lineman Jacob Schultsmeier (Mountain View).
“We’ve all been playing together since we were young, and we’re all super close,” Mikita said. “We’re all going to earn our spots and make our marks.”
Boise State also has a history of helping walk-ons grow into starters and premier players. Former Bronco Avery Williams joined the team as a walk-on and went on to earn back-to-back Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year honors. Now he’s preparing to make his debut at running back in his second season with the Atlanta Falcons.
The life of a walk-on isn’t luxurious, Mikita said. It involves long hours in the weight room and on the practice field, with no guarantee that it will result in playing time.
But he couldn’t be more excited for the challenge.
“It’s a grind, but I talked to a couple of guys who walked on before me and they said they got treated just like everybody else as soon as they stepped through the door,” Mikita said. “Hard work isn’t new to me.”
— Eli Mikita (@eli_mikita) July 26, 2022
It took Mikita about five months after surgery just to start running again, but he spent the spring focused on getting back to full health. The 5-foot-9, 202-pound freshman has been on campus at Boise State since June, and his ACL hasn’t hampered him so far, Avalos said.
“Those young men just ran 21 upper decks with the upperclassmen the other day, and that’s not easy to do,” Avalos said at media days in July. “The No. 1 thing for a freshman is to understand the standard of our brotherhood. The other thing is figuring how to learn because they were probably never expected to sit in a film room and take notes like they’re in a communications class before now.”
Mikita isn’t likely to get many carries in Boise State’s crowded backfield this season.
Starting running back George Holani appears as healthy as he’s been since he posted 1,014 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman in 2019. Freshman Ashton Jeanty joined the program as an early enrollee in January, and the coaches already seem enamored enough to make him the No. 2 back heading into the season.
Crowe, a redshirt junior, has a chance to take over as the Broncos’ short-yardage back this fall, but former Utah State running back Elelyon Noa transferred in this month, and he could push Crowe and Jeanty for playing time.
After breaking former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush’s rushing record in high school, Noa was second on the team at Utah State last season with 597 rushing yards.
Former wide receiver Kaden Dudley also moved to running back this summer for the Broncos.
“We feel really good about the depth in the running backs room right now,” Boise State running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. “Guys are healthy and working hard. We have some talented older guys, but they’re getting pushed by the younger ones.”
It may take some time for Mikita to earn playing time at Boise State, but it won’t take him long to earn the respect of his coaches and teammates, Hartz said.
“What the folks at Boise State are going to see really quickly is how hard he works,” Hartz said. “His combination of speed and power is incredible. He can shake a defender or run through them, but he works the hardest when the bright lights aren’t on, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for.”