Austin Barth made a comeback two weeks ago that seemed quiet because, if you didn’t know any better, you would hardly recognize he was gone.
The Montana State junior tight end already has more catches in two games this season than he totaled in the previous two seasons as MSU’s third tight end. Barth caught two passes for 28 yards in a 55-50 loss at Eastern Washington that included a career-long 23-yard reception. Last week in a 45-28 win over Cal Poly, Barth caught a pass for 16 yards, played a crucial role blocking along the line as MSU rushed for 203 yards and filled in seamlessly for injured Rocky Hogue as MSU’s long snapper.
With the departure of first-team All-Big Sky tight end Tiai Salanoa and fellow 2014 senior and bulldog blocker Lee Perkins, Barth knew this season would hold an elevated role. But he hit a speed bump in fall camp that derailed him early.
About a week into fall camp, Barth could hardly move. His stomach felt like “it had a rock in it.” But the Columbia Falls native has always prided himself on his toughness. He figured he just had a bad stomachache and decided to try to sleep it off. Eventually, his roommates talked him into going into the emergency room.
By the time Barth left the hospital, he no longer had his appendix.
“I got such a bad stomachache,” Barth said. “That’s what I thought it was for about a day. Then my roommates talked me into going into the ER. It was bad. I was in the fetal position. But I just thought it was a stomachache. I’m glad they talked me into going in. They took it out immediately after I got there and I felt good as soon as it was out.”
Barth had surgery on August 18. He missed the rest of fall camp and Montana State’s season-opening 45-14 win over Division II Fort Lewis. Barth returned to the field at EWU on September 19.
“He was good to go right away,” MSU tight ends coach Daniel DaPrato said. “He did everything he needed to during that time off as far as his conditioning, as far as keeping himself in shape and his mental preparation. He stood by my side every single day at practice, was reading plays off, helping signal. He was always prepared mentally and physically. He was able to step in on the spot.”
Although Barth performed well and showed no signs of rust in his first game, he said it wasn’t as easy as it might have looked.
“I was really out of shape that first week,” Barth said with a smile. “Getting the strength back, I finally feel like this week I’m finally back to 100 percent. It wasn’t a bad recovery, but I was just terribly out of shape.”
Barth signed with Montana State after a standout two-sport career as a quarterback, linebacker and power forward for the Columbia Falls High football and basketball teams. The 6-foot-5 athlete was an all-state basketball player who could dunk with two hands and throw a football on a rope. But his redshirt year at MSU in 2012, the Bobcats frequently used the quarterback recruit on the scout team to simulate big bodies of upcoming opponents.
He seemed to acclimate quickly to playing on the outside, both as a wide receiver and a tight end. He was MSU’s 2012 Scout Team Offensive MVP. It became apparent with the steady rise of his classmate Dakota Prukop that the easiest way for Barth to get on the field would be to switch positions. Barth had never lifted weights in high school so the training of a redshirt year had already packed mass on to his once-220-pound frame. By the spring of 2013, he was up to 240 pounds.
Entering this year, he was up over 250 pounds. But the appendicitis ravaged his frame, causing him to rapidly lose 16 pounds. Since his return, he is back up to 248 pounds and climbing. He hopes to be at his 255-pound ideal playing wait soon.
Barth might also see some increased time on special teams. Hogue’s foot injury will have him out for an indefinite amount of time, meaning Barth will serve a role he filled throughout his redshirt freshman season in 2013. Although last week, Barth did not get much work as MSU lined up for just one punt and one field goal, running fakes on each instead.
“I learned how to long snap my redshirt freshman year and I have loved it ever since,” Barth said. “(Former offensive line coach Jason) McEndoo would come out 10 minutes before practice every day and work with me. I think it’s a lot of fun.””
With departure of Salanoa and Perkins, Barth has become the elder statesman in a tight ends group that also includes senior former Miami transfer Beau Sandland along with second-year freshmen Wilson Brott and Curtis Amos. All three tight ends besides Barth redshirted last season. Each one looks to him for advice and guidance in learning and mastering Montana State’s offensive scheme.
“Barth has been immensely helpful,” Sandland said. “Barth is a really good leader. All of us in the tight end room, if we have any questions, we all really look to Barth. He’s done a great job of performing out on the field. He’s done a great job of welcoming me in and we’ve done a really good job on and off the field and I think that we compliment each other and play off each other’s strengths.
Last week, MSU’s tight end prowess was on full display. Barth caught a 16-yard pass and played a key role in the run game. Sandland had the breakout many expected from the 6-foot-6, 260-pound NFL hopeful, hauling in five catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns. This season, 12 of Prukop’s 68 completions (18 percent) have gone to tight ends for 236 yards, or about 25 percent of his yards. Sandland has scored three of MSU’s 10 receiving touchdowns.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we are the best tight end duo in the FCS. I think that allows us to do a lot of stuff,” Sandland said. “A lot of offenses would love to have one 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight ends. Here, we have two of them. That’s pretty nice to have with Barth back.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.