Big Sky Conference

Strength, speed comes in many forms in the Big Sky


Size, strength and speed are undeniable elements to be successful in college football. Sometimes, the best players on the field are the fastest or the strongest. But other times, looks and prestige can be deceiving.

With the full opening of Big Sky Conference play on the horizon — four teams have played a game leading up to this week while the other nine teams open up league play this weekend — the league is filled with star players with flashy measurable numbers. But the Big Sky is also filled with players most have never heard of that achieve impressive measures of physicality consistently.

MSU's Tucker Yates split-squat

MSU’s Tucker Yates front split-squats

A pair of the biggest physical anomalies can be found lifting together in Bozeman, Montana. Dubbed the “Bowling Ball Brothers” by a Montana State official, the Bobcat defensive tackle duo of Matt Brownlow and Tucker Yates can put on a display in the weight room. Although neither one has prototype Division I size — Yates is a shade under 6-feet tall and weighs 300 pounds while Brownlow is 5-foot-9 and weights 305 pounds — each certainly has Division I strength.

Yates, a redshirt freshman from Colstrip, is the king of the bench press among his Bobcat brethren. His barrel chest is perfectly built for the lift and his intensity only adds to his strength. Yates can bench press almost 450 pounds as a 19-year-old. Yates also boasts a 340-pound high-pull max — he and Brownlow don’t participate in power cleans to avoid injury — and Yates has squatted 585 pounds for four repetitions.

“My dad was always a big lifter so I’ve been benching my whole life,” said Yates, who’s dad Stacy is the head coach for the Colstrip/Lame Deer football team. “I’ve always loved it. At that nose position, we are getting double teamed every single play so you have to be able to hold your ground in there and then be able to shed the block either way,” Yates said. “I have to be strong to be able to hold my own.”

Yates’ strength has always been well-known — he won three straight Class B state wrestling championships in high school — but Brownlow has been a revelation since walking on to the Bobcats three years ago. The redshirt sophomore from Sentinel is a marvel of leverage, using his short, portly body to throw around as much weight as anyone in the Big Sky.

Brownlow is currently the strongest player on the Bobcats in terms of overall squat max. During the summer, the Missoula Sentinel product squatted 625 pounds twice, equaling an estimated max of 692 pounds. He can also bench 420 pounds and his high pull is at 330 pounds.

“Being shorter, I’ve really tried to focus on my legs for explosiveness because I have the weight, I just don’t have the leverage,” Brownlow said. “The explosiveness and being able to pop guys up gives you that extra second to move around.”

MSU's Matt Brownlow hammer presses

MSU’s Matt Brownlow hammer presses

Montana State defensive line coach Bo Beck has mentored players of all shapes and sizes during his nine years at Montana State. He’s had linemen that dominant with quickness like Brad Daly and with explosiveness like Dane Fletcher. Brownlow and Yates don’t have much of a comparison in terms of former players but their formidable strength help them hold their own at least, Beck said.

“Tuck has the natural ability anyway and he’s good with leverage because of his wrestling career,” Beck said. “Whatever he’s added strength-wise, his body is just built like The Thing.”

“Matt is just really, really explosively strong in his legs. I think he can squat almost 700 pounds. It was impressive and it was easy. That’s what shorter guys can do. It’s kind of like the fullbacks who can bench press 400 pounds because they only have to go six inches off their chests.”

Southern Utah has a hidden monster as well. Last year, SUU head coach Ed Lamb was walking on campus in Cedar City. He saw massive powder keg of a man walking on campus. That man was Sefesi Vaa’ivaka, at the time a 28-year-old who graduated from Bingham High in South Jordan, Utah in 2004.

Lamb noticed the former all-state fullback and defensive tackle from the time he and the BYU staff had recruited Vaa’ivaka when Lamb was coaching at his alma mater. Lamb walked up to Vaa’ivaka and asked him what he was going in life. Vaa’ivaka said he had just enrolled at Southern Utah as a student for the first time. In other words, his eligibility clock had not started ticking. Lamb promptly asked him to walk on.

Vaa’ivaka instantly made his presence known among his Thunderbird teammates because of his insane ability in the weight room. The 6-foot-3, 360-pounder seemingly has limitless potential when it comes to lifting.

“I would say that guy might be the strongest guy in the country,” SUU All-Big Sky senior cornerback LeShaun Sims said in August. “I’m serious. That man is a beast. It’s crazy to watch him work out. It looks so easy. He can lift trucks and mountains I bet.”

Lamb has long called his team a squad of “weightlifters who like to play football.” Vaa’ivaka, who played defensive tackle last season before switching to offensive line this season, has turned heads even among his strong and explosive teammates.

SUU's vesi

SUU’s Sefesi Vaa’ivaka

“We did a full-on squat workout, leg day and then our strength coach said we had a set of 20,” SUU two-time All-America defensive end James Cowser, the 2015 preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, said in July. “Most guys are doing like 225 pounds. He was 450 pounds, cranking. He’s literally not human. He played on two broken legs last year (fractured shins). TWO BROKEN LEGS. I’ve never seen him fail a squat set. We were doing sets of two this week and he had 685, 700 pounds. He can’t fail.”

Southern Utah strength coach Jeff Butler arrived in Cedar City in March. When he first watched Vaa’ivaka lift weights, he could hardly believe his eyes.

“His strength is something you have to see to believe,” Butler said in an interview in August. “He loaded up the squat rack the other day and I cut him off at 650 pounds because he was starting to get a bit of a hip tuck. He could’ve gone much higher. He was repping it out with ease. We weren’t even maxing.

“He bench-presses 565 pounds. I cut him off at 380 for power cleans because he’s such a large guy and he’s still working on his technique. But he’s a freak athlete. He weights more than 350 pounds and he’s got a 28-inch vertical. He’s next level athletic. He’s super light on his feet. He has feet like a boxer. And he’s the strongest guy I’ve ever seen.”

Some of the strongest players in the league are unknown, at least on the league-wide level, like Vaa’ivaka, Brownlow and Yates. At Montana, All-Big Sky senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes can certainly throw around some weight but he claims that walk-on turned starting defensive tackle Zach Peevey is the strongest guy on the Griz. Peevey was one a standout Missoula Hellgate basketball player, a “tweener” who stood 6-foot-3 and weighted 220 pounds. Now he’s up to 265 pounds.

MSU dynamic stretching

MSU dynamic stretching

“That dude lifts so hard that he put on 20 pounds in his first two weeks of fall camp playing college football,” Holmes said with a laugh. “Sometimes I don’t know if he even knows how much weight is on the bar. He’ll just put the weight room on there and do it.”

Cal Poly has itself a portly plug in the middle in Marcus Paige-Allen. The 5-foot-11, 275-pound junior burst onto the scene last fall, using his formidable strength to plug holes and earn third-team All-Big Sky honors. Paige-Allen comes from significant genes in terms of strength — his uncle is 12-time NFL Pro Bowl offensive lineman Larry Allen — and he’s shown his power as well.

“Larry Allen might be the strongest guy ever. Marcus is strong like that,” Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown said. “ I’ve seen him throw on 650 pounds on the squad rack. He can bench at least 525 pounds. He’s got those genes and that low center of gravity. He’s an animal.”

Other players, like Northern Arizona senior fullback Nick Butier, are well-respected around the Big Sky but may not receive the headlines of quarterbacks or wide receivers. The 6-foot, 235-pound Butier is a two-time All-Big Sky selection as a fullback and a special teams player. He’s a preseason All-America. But he rarely touches the ball.

“He’s crazy. And people don’t know this but he’s got a 41-inch vertical,” NAU senior All-America cornerback Marcus Alford said in July. “We don’t know how he does that. He cleans so much, over 400 pounds. He’s a freakin’ beast. He walked on to NAU and now he’s got a scholarship. That dude is scary.”

And some of the strongest and fastest players in the league are also among the best. strength sign

The last time Sims ran for scouts, he clocked 4.32 seconds and 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Sims is a two-time All-Big Sky selection at cornerback. Alford ran a pair of 4.31-second 40s as a freshman but hasn’t tested since. He’s a two-time All-Big Sky pick. Portland State senior cornerback Aaron Sibley has run an electronic 4.41 in the 40. The two-time All-Big Sky selection is an All-America candidate this season for the 2-0 Vikings. Montana senior outside linebacker Herbert Gamboa ran 10.51 in the 100 meters as a senior at San Clemente (California) High and still runs the 60 meters for the UM indoor track team.

Montana State has a burner in Justin Paige, a former national championship-level 400 runner at Morton Ranch High in Houston. Paige has been timed as fast as 4.38 seconds in the 40. In his MSU career, the sophomore has 14 catches for 474 yards (33.8 yards per catch) and all three of his career touchdowns went for more than 50 yards.

Cal Poly’s Roland Jackson fills a similar deep threat role in the Mustangs’ triple-option offense. The senior has just 17 career receptions but he’s nearly 31 yards per catch in his career. He has scoring receptions of 36, 38, 52 and 59 yards in his career.

Eastern Washington’s Shaq Hill has been among the fastest players in the league since the day he put on an Eagle uniform. Although the senior has been slowed by a knee injury thus far, he still holds a reputation as the league’s most explosive player. He has totaled 18 plays of more than 45 yards in his career, including five kickoff returns for touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns of more than 55 yards. He’s averaging 17.4 yards per catch for his career and has scored 15 receiving touchdowns while earning All-Big Sky honors three times. EWU strength coach Amir Owens said the Eagles don’t test 40s but that Hill has run as fast as 2.6 seconds in the 20-yard dash, the fastest on the team.”

MSU's Taylor Sheridan

MSU’s Taylor Sheridan

Idaho State, Weber State, Sacramento State and North Dakota are all teams with strongmen who look and play the part.

At ISU, Tyler Kuder is a physical specimen. The 6-foot-3, 311-pounder has earned All-Big Sky honors as an interior defensive lineman for the last two years. This season, he already had 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack among his 23 tackles. Idaho State running back Xavier Finney said Kuder can bench press more than 500 pounds.

At Weber State, senior center Joe Hawkins may be the Wildcats’ most talented and strongest player. The 6-foot-1, 330-pounder has started 36 straight games dating back to his true freshman season. He earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors last season. The soft-spoken Hawkins had a hard time admitting his prowess but with a little prodding, he acknowledged he can bench press 440 pounds and squat 575 pounds.

At UND, Will Ratelle looks as much like a body builder as an inside linebacker. The 5-foot-11, 255-pound senior is a physical marvel, a stout yet ripped block of chiseled muscle. He holds the UND all-time records in power cleans (182 kilograms or roughly 401 pounds), snatch (140 kilos or 308 pounds) and clean and jerk (182 kilos or 401 pounds). He can also squat 595 and bench press 405. Ratelle, an honorable mention All-Big Sky selection and leading tackler for the league’s leading defense last season, is also the third-fastest player in Grand Forks. He has run a 4.70 in the 40, laser timed.

At Sac State, Darnell Sankey is one of the most visually intimidating players in the league. The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder is a converted defensive end who roams in the middle from his inside linebacker spot with ferocity. He’s a tackling machine — he piled up 100 tackles in nine games before an injury cut his junior season short last fall — and he’s got the physical power to back it up. Sankey is the strongest Hornet in every major lift. He can squat 615 pounds, bench press 405 pounds and power cleans 365 pounds. He can deadlift 555 pounds five times. His strength and production has him as one of 20 players on the FCS Defensive Player of the Year.

Strength and speed are not end all, be all requirements to be a stud football player. But winning a race is one of the oldest and most pure forms of competition. And displays of strength have long been ways for men to define themselves and position for respect amongst their peers.

“It’s always fun to watch big weight go up,” said Beck, who played with a slew of impressive players at Arizona State and Colorado State in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “You have guys cheering you on and the whole place is going crazy. When you do more than everyone else in the room, you can say, ‘I’m stronger than you.’ At the end of the day in life, what else matters?”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. Sefesi Vaa’ivaka courtesy of Southern Utah Athletics. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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