BOZEMAN, Montana — Montana State has navigated a season of expectations with six team captains leading the way.
Left tackle Mitch Brott is the offensive tone setter. Travis Jonsen and Kevin Kassis are the pretty wide receivers willing to soak in the spotlight and deflect attention, good or bad, from the rest of the team. Troy Andersen, the only junior among the six, is the almost mythical hero, the impossibly athletic and tough play maker who plays both ways despite a broken body that just won’t quit.
Montana State’s other two captains are a pair of second cousins from Belgrade that are quite literally living out a dream playing for a Bobcat team just on the other side of the tracks from the working class town just outside of Bozeman they both grew up in.
Brayden Konkol’s grandfather and Derek Marks’ grandmother are first cousins. Marks said growing up in Belgrade, the Konkols were more like family friends than relatives. But the current Bobcat seniors have been playing sports with each other since they were little kids.
The two have grown into entirely different people and entirely different leaders. They are the Ying and Yang of Montana State’s fearsome defense. Konkol is the enforcer on the back end from his strong safety position, a player who will talk smack to your face after he’s already put you on your back.
“Konkol’s attitude is something else,” Andersen said earlier this season. “He’s a tough, tough kid and he’s going to just throw his body in there, do whatever he has to. And he’ll let you know about it. Every time.
“He’s an asshole and I love it,” added senior safety Jahque Alleyne. “That man lets you know. He’s the real deal physical, especially when he gets pissed off. You can’t really tell him anything. He tells you.”
Marks is the gracious, gentle leader, the general of a Montana State defensive front filled with athletic, salty play-makers. Marks will put his arm around you to offer encouragement right after notching another tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
“When your best players are your best people in your organization and the hardest workers in your organization, everything gets a little easier,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said. “That would be how I would best describe Derek.”
Marks wants to be a minister when he graduates from Montana State. Konkol, who’s middle name is Lambeau in homage to the home of the Green Bay Packers, wants to play in the NFL before he puts the construction engineering technology degree to use.
Marks is tempered and thoughtful when he speaks. Konkol is blunt and to the point. Marks’ rosy red cheeks gives him a disarming way of being despite his 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame and four years starting on the defensive line. Konkol rolls his jersey up at practice to show off his chiseled physique, just adding to the physical intimidation projected by the 6-foot-2, 218-pounder.
“Marks, the type of leadership he brings is making sure everybody is poised and making sure everybody is doing their jobs and making sure everybody is not jeopardizing the team by doing something dumb but also making sure everybody believes in themselves,” Alleyne said. “He’s not always vocal but when he is, you just sit there and you listen.
“Konkol is a physical player who talks his talk and says what he has to say and who holds everybody accountable to make make sure everybody is in the right position so that they can get their jobs done. I think Konkol is the type of player that when he makes a play, he’s definitely going to let you know about.”
Although the Belgrade boys are completely opposite in personality, they have made equally sizeable contributions to Bobcat football over the last five years. Konkol graduated high school a year before Marks but each was committed to Montana State when Rob Ash was the head coach.
When Ash was fired following a loss to the rival Grizzlies in 2015, Konkol was a redshirt freshman who many considered too slow to play safety and not big enough to play linebacker. Marks was a senior in high school previously recruited by Power 5 schools to throw javelin but who wanted to play football at Montana State.
Four years later, the duo will lead the Bobcats against the rival Griz one last time. Marks will already live in the lore of the rivalry forever after gathering what was essentially a game-winning fumble recovery after a goal line stop with eight seconds left to cap Montana State’s epic 29-25 comeback win in Missoula last season. Saturday, MSU will gun for its fourth straight win in the rivalry.
“Beating the Griz has been such a sweet experience, experiencing the playoffs, it’s been awesome,” Marks said. “We have helped take this program from a low spot and dig it out a little bit. It’s taken a lot of hard work and a lot of energy. But we have set ourselves up for this.”
Konkol will also live in the lore of Cat-Griz first because of two tone setting hits of Montana human joystick Jerry Louie-McGee in the 2016 rivalry game, then for a 17-tackle performance from his inside linebacker position as a sophomore in 2017 and then for his standout effort last season to help the Bobcats stonewall the Grizzlies after halftime to rally from a 22-0 deficit.
“We are 3-0 against the Griz,” Konkol said. “That’s everything with Montana State, Missoula football teams. I’m lucky enough to do it. I’m never going to forget those three games.
“Being from Belgrade, going to all the Cat games growing up, I knew about this rivalry. But you don’t know about it until you play in it and there’s 25,000 fans cheering either for or against you. I’m proud of 3-0 and hoping to make it 4-0.”
Throughout the journey, Konkol and Marks have defied the odds for a couple of kids who played Class A football in a town many of their peers from Bozeman looked down upon. Bozeman kids always told Konkol and Marks that they played at “Below Grade”, never acknowledging the success that helped the Panthers go on multiple playoff runs.
Marks was a dominant player on both sides of the ball but many, including MSU’s former coaching staff, wondered if he would take the interest he was receiving from schools like Oklahoma, Missouri and Stanford and throw javelin in college. But he committed to the Bobcats before his senior year. Many wondered what he would play in college since he does not possess prototype defensive line length and size.
Konkol was a quarterback and outside linebacker in high school, an aggressive and sometimes reckless player who played with an edge but also was likely neither of those positions at the college level.
But those recruiting notions have never gotten in the way of their collective rise into the starting lineup. Konkol was Montana State’s starting strong safety by the end of the 2016 season. His addition to the lineup helped MSU win two straight games after losing seven of the first nine under Choate. Since then, he’s started all over the field, playing a pivotal, versatile role in Montana State’s defensive resurrection.
Partially because of a slew of injuries along the defensive line and partially because of his advanced fundamentals and his previous knowledge of Choate’s individual d-line drills, Marks broke into the starting lineup as a true freshman that same year in 2016.
On Saturday, Konkol will make his 38th straight start. He has started at both safety spots, inside linebacker (for 11 straight games as a sophomore) and this season has also served as MSU’s primary nickel and dime back. Konkol has 51 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and an interception this season. He has 247 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks, four interceptions, one forced fumbles and two fumble recovers in his career.
“Knowing you have him behind you if anything goes bad is a relief because he’s not a dude I would want to mess with,” MSU redshirt freshman Nolan Askelson said. “You see him smack somebody and it gets the juices flowing and gets you ready to go out there and play.”
Marks started 20 games to begin his career, moved into a utility role last season and has transitioned from defensive end to Buck end and finally to defensive tackle for his final season with the Bobcats. Marks has 40 tackles and 11 tackles for loss this season. He has 27 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in his career.
“He’s the guy who sets the tone for that group as far as his preparation and his work outside the game,” MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said. “He is an absolute technician. It is so fun to watch him on Sundays after the game and see the ways he’s winning and how he is using his hands and utilizing his film study to take advantage of certain situations and scenarios”
During the years Konkol and Marks played for former Bobcat Eric Kinnaman and helped turn the Panthers into a Class A power, the Bobcats were winning Big Sky championships and competing on the national stage.
MSU won three straight Big Sky titles from 2010 until 2012. That last title came in Marks’ freshman year of high school and Konkol’s sophomore year, Marks said he looked up to Caleb Schreibeis, the eventual Buck Buchanan Award winner and defensive tackle Zach Minter, an All-American.
Even when one of the most decorated MSU classes in school history did not make the playoffs in 2013, neither Belgrade standout thought a rebuild was on the horizon. And the Panther players could relate; Belgrade climbed to No. 1 in Class A only to get upset in the playoffs by Dillon during Konkol’s junior and senior seasons.
When Ash and his staff was recruiting Konkol, Montana State’s former head coach made Konkol a promise. And recent history gave every indication those promises would come true
“When I came here, he promised me a degree in my hand and a ring on my finger,” Konkol said. “I came to Montana State, I thought I would win two, three rings. But we’ve definitely had some hard times. That first winter when Choate got here, I came in with 30-ish guys (31 officially). And there’s only six of us left.
“He cut a lot of people and he definitely makes it hard on you. But he wanted to get the right people and establish his culture. It’s paid off in the long run.”
Marks explored his options coming into his prep senior year despite giving a verbal commitment earlier on in 2015. He listened to pitches from track & field coaches. He went on a visit and earned an offer from the Griz for football. And he attended a camp at the University of Washington where he first met Choate, who was the defensive line coach for the Huskies.
The last month of that summer, Marks worked out with former Washington defensive lineman and current Seattle Seahawks tight end Will Dissly, a native of Bozeman. Marks loved the coaching he received from Choate at Washington and he learned to master the drills with Dissly’s help. Little did he know that Choate would be his next head coach less than four months later.
“I loved Coach Ash and his staff, Coach Beck,” Marks said. “They had a great legacy of defensive linemen here. They were the staff that first recruited me, gave me my first offer and I appreciate them. I got to know them for about a year, maybe even more. It never crossed my mind they would get fired.
“Then Coach Choate got hired and it was awesome immediately. I had a comfort level with Coach Choate and a previous connection. I was super excited. And he’s been better than I could’ve imagined.”
A football journey with many speed bumps navigated in parallel is winding to an end for Marks and Konkol. Win or lose against the Grizzlies, the Bobcats are almost certainly returning to the postseason for a second straight season. MSU could earn a playoff seed and a first-round bye, which means the Belgrade boys could spend Thanksgiving with their families just up the road.
Konkol describes himself as a football junky. It’s what has let him break into the lineup early and play all over Montana State’s defense. He is determined to play football as long as he can. He plans to stay in Bozeman in the spring to finish his degree and train for a pro day. In the meantime, he is trying to soak up his last days as a Bobcat.
“I just love football and I want to be around the game as long as I can. You have to get better every day. I have that mindset to get better every single day. If you focus in and get better every rep, it can take you places you never really thought you could go.
“I have people trying to contact me and stuff but so much of that is going to come down to how this season plays out. We still big games, plus playoffs so I want to focus in on these next few weeks. The next level is no guarantee. I love this program and this is my last couple of games playing for it so I’m trying to give it my all.”
Ever since having lunch with former Bobcat wide receiver Matt Thibault and Schreibeis when he was a senior in high school — the former MSU players invited him to attend Grace Bible Church — Marks has dedicated himself to his Christian faith. Many of his teammates and coaches are surprised to know that he did not grow up in the church. But he has been so dedicated to his “pursuit of pleasing the Lord” that he wants to be a Christian minister after college.
He credits that faith for centering him, for leading him to meet and court his wife, Tanna and for giving him the structure to become the selfless leader he is today. The experience of playing for the Bobcats has helped Marks “make brothers with my defensive linemen” and forge relationships that will last a lifetime.
And ever since they were playing football in the backyard as tiny children, Marks and Konkol have shared a football life together. Now the boys from Belgrade have a chance to finish their Bobcat careers with a flourish.
“It’s been better than we could’ve even imagined,” Marks said when asked about playing with his second cousin. “We have personal goals but it’s been sweet to both get on the field early on in our careers and be able to have an impact on the game, be able to have all four years together on the same team.
“And our relationship has been really sweet both on and off the field. It’s going to be one of those things that I’m going to look back on and really appreciate. Hopefully, we can keep making memories.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.