BOZEMAN — Byron Hout will be the first to admit he hates game days.
It’s not that he doesn’t like to watch Montana State compete or coach the Bobcat defensive line during the heat of battle. But MSU’s defensive line coach gets knots in his stomach as the opening kick approaches.
On Saturday, Montana State will celebrate 10 seniors playing their final home games at Bobcat Stadium. Hout, in his third year as an assistant at MSU, has played an integral role in helping end Tyrone Fa’anono, tackle Zach Wright and nose guard Tucker Yates — each three-year starters, each honors candidates, each team leaders in their own right — reach this climactic moment in their careers.
And Hout has no idea what his emotions will be like.
“I’ll just try to stay as calm as possible,” Hout said with a chuckle on Monday morning leading up to the home finale against Northern Colorado. “Those guys are going to be so emotional. I want to be the even keel guy. Hopefully they pick up on my emotions and reflect that. But to be honest, I don’t know. I’ll tell you after the game. I might be a wreck because I love those guys.”
Emotions will run high across the roster as MSU celebrates those three defensive linemen along with tight ends Connor Sullivan, Curtis Amos and Wilson Brott, center Alex Neale, inside linebacker Grant Collins and injured senior wide receivers John D’Agostino and Jabarri Johnson on Senior Day Saturday.
“It’s a special day but it’s also a bittersweet day,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “Some guys who have played a ton of football for us, sacrificed a lot, went through a coaching change. Bought into a new culture. Many of them have gone through injuries…There are guys who had to persevere through some adversity.
“I hope we have an awesome crowd on Saturday and I think these are young men that should be celebrated for what they’ve sacrificed for this program and how they’ve represented for this program.”
Among Montana State’s 10 seniors, eight have been Bobcats for the last five years. Sullivan, Amos, Collins, Yates, Fa’anono, Wright and Yates all signed with the Bobcats in February of 2014 as the second-to-last recruiting class added to the MSU roster by former head coach Rob Ash.
Other than the transition of a coaching change — Ash was fired when most of MSU’s seniors were coming off their redshirt freshman seasons in 2015 — the group has navigated paths filled with various obstacles.
Collins, the 2013 Class AA Defensive MVP on Bozeman High’s state championship team, has had some sort of surgery every off-season yet had a string of 28 straight starts that ended last year. On Saturday, Collins will start for the 36th time as a Bobcat.
D’Agostino was a first-team all-state wide receiver on that same Bozeman High team. The son of former Bobcat standout Mark D’Agostino turned down multiple scholarship offers from the Frontier Conference to chase his ultimate dream of being a Bobcat. After proving himself to the former staff and re-proving himself to Choate and his staff, D’Agostino earned a scholarship following fall camp in 2016. Since then, his career has been riddled with injuries, from a separated shoulder that ended his 2016 campaign to a torn ACL suffered in the spring of 2017 that cost him all last season to a dislocated elbow suffered a few weeks ago that effectively ended his career.
The signing class of 2014 was highlighted by a collection of local products — Sullivan, an Ennis native, and Manhattan offensive lineman Austin Oldenburger joined the Bozeman High signees — as well as a strong Texas contingent, including Amos, a Burleson native and Wright, who grew up in New Braunfels.
Lone Star State products Bryce Alley, Tavon Dodd, Braelen Evans, Toti Moeakiola, Justin Paige and Wawa Leota all either exhausted their eligibility in four years or did not make it to the end like Amos, a 6-foot, 212-pounder recruited as an athlete who played defensive end his first fall camp. He moved back to his more traditional position of tight end and his season, has developed into a player Choate calls “one of our most physical guys on offense.”
“And he’s from a really good family,” Choate said in September. “I think they were a big reason why he stayed. ‘Hey, you are in a good spot, stick it out, get your degree.’ I think a lot of times when kids have doubt if they are going to hang through a coaching change when things don’t go their way, what they really need is their parents to look at it and go, ‘hey are you happy, safe and productive where you are at? Then have the courage to see it through.’ I really respect Curtis for being that man and really embracing his role on this team.”
Brott, like D’Agostino, joined the Bobcats as a preferred walk-on. The former Billings West quarterback, like Amos and Sullivan, has navigated position changes. He’s been to the top of the scale, and back – literally. The former standout prep basketball player went to work gaining mass when he was first placed at tight end. A few years into his journey, he moved to offensive tackle. He got up as high as 285 pounds before switching back to tight end for his senior year, playing his final season at 260.
After leading Ennis to the 2013 Class C state title, Sullivan came to Montana State with the potential to develop into the sort of big-bodied possession receiver Ash and his staff often favored. By Choate’s first season, mass gain became a priority with Sullivan also moving to tight end. Although he’s up nearly 30 pounds during his time in the program, he remains one of MSU’s smoothest, most athletic offensive players.
Much like Collins, Fa’anono has had to fight to through a seemingly constant string of injuries. After becoming one of the first players in his recruiting class to break into the starting lineup, Fa’anono struggled to stay healthy after a breakout true freshman season in 2014. He missed all or parts of the next two seasons, then played out of position at Buck end for most of last fall. Now that he’s fully healthy and playing the “5I” strong end spot in Montana State’s 3-4 defense, he is putting together an all-league caliber senior campaign.
“This season means a lot because it’s shown what I could’ve done without the injuries,” Fa’anono said on Tuesday. “Being able to play a lot and actually contributing to the team means a lot to me because I didn’t come here to play or be average. I came here to make an impact and to be the best player I could be.”
Wright, a Texas product who has acclimated well to Montana while still taking great pride in his roots, and Yates, a native of Colstrip, were among the least heralded of their signing class. But the defensive tackle duo have been arguably the sturdiest, most consistent producers of the group.
Saturday will mark Yates’ 31st start of his career and the true nose guard seems like he’s in line to turn his preseason All-Big Sky recognition into postseason accolades. Wright moved from defensive end to defensive tackle as a redshirt sophomore, cracking the lineup and starting 22 straight games. He’s bounced back and forth between tackle and nose this season and his versatility has allowed MSU to play a variety of lineups on the defensive front.
“Having those three different dynamics in the room has really transformed the young guys below them and has made my job a lot easier because the guys below them are starting to form into a version of all three,” Hout said. “I’m excited for these young guys who have spent some years with those three and are starting to form a leadership style based off those three guys.
“It’s never been about those three. It’s always been about the legacy they leave behind with these young guys that is really going to take this thing to the next level.”
Neale and Johnson are the only two transfers added by Choate who have made it to the end of their eligibility. Johnson, who started his career at Sacramento State before spending a year at American River CC, was a force last year for Montana State as a physically imposing outside receiver. He suffered a non-contact tear to his ACL during the off-season that ended his career abruptly.
Neale, who originally committed to Montana while a senior at Eastside Catholic High outside of Seattle, ended up spending his freshman year at UNLV. He was one of Choate’s first recruits, joining the Bobcats a month after Choate was hired. He will make his 32nd straight start at center on Saturday.
Because he played in four games as a true freshman, Neale is petitioning the NCAA for a fifth year of eligibility because of a new rule past last off-season that allows players to play in up to four games and still redshirt.
Choate has put an emphasis on building up the toughness of his team on the field. But he’s also put equal emphasis on the acronym he uses for his program: C.A.T., which means character, accountability and toughness. To a man, each of the players who will play their final games at Bobcat have acknowledged the personal growth they’ve gone through during their time playing for Choate.
The third-year head coach has had leaders throughout the last three seasons. But this group of seniors has bought into his principles a high level, in turn maturing before Choate’s eyes.
“It takes some time and that was part of my plan coming in here,” Choate said. “I didn’t want scorched earth. I wanted to make sure we won kids over by how we treated them, being consistent whether that was how we treated them or what the expectations and standards were. And tough decisions have to be made.
“This is a job where it’s really easy sometimes to not do anything. But that will bite you in the rear end in the long run. At the end of the day, we have earned the respect of our players in that locker room. They know right is right, wrong is wrong and Coach Choate is not going to put up with it if it’s wrong.
“Over time, you get guys who are academic All-Americans and guys who are winners and you get guys who will fight for each other and believe in that bond and that brotherhood in that locker room and when a foundation is strong, it’s not going to crumble overnight. It’s kind of been brick by brick that we have tried to build this thing up. I feel really good about this group of seniors because I think they have been catalysts for us driving the culture we want to build.
“It’s not just what these guys have done in terms of how they have represented Montana State between the white lines but who they are as young men and the future they have in front of them. Saturday will be a special day.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.