Big Sky Conference

Defensive line depth much improved for Bobcats

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The Bobcats made a concerted decision to invest in the front. As Montana State inches toward the 2017 season, it appears the investment is paying off.

Most of Montana State’s defensive linemen have grown in mass and maturity, while others, like barreling nose tackle Tucker Yates, actually slimmed down in the off-season.

Regardless of if the Bobcats who anchor the trenches grew or shrank individually, the group is certainly much bigger in terms of pure population than than at any time during Jeff Choate’s first season at MSU.

As Montana State marches toward the midpoint of the second fall camp under Choate, defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak and defensive line coach Byron Hout, the defensive front has been reinvigorated.

Montana State junior defensive end Tyrone Fa'anono/ by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State junior defensive end Tyrone Fa’anono/ by Brooks Nuanez

Junior defensive end Tyrone Fa’anono is healthy after missing all of 2016 with a foot injury. Yates and All-Big Sky junior tackle Zach Wright are at full strength after battling nagging injuries throughout last season. Senior tackles Brandon Hayashi and Fou Polataivao have each adjusted to the Division I grind after coming to MSU from the junior college ranks.

Sophomores Derek Marks and Marcus Ferriter are all of a sudden veterans after splitting starting time as freshmen after injuries cost the Bobcats ends Fa’anono, Devin Jeffries, Robert Wilcox and Shiloh LaBoy for most or all of last season.

Young players like Chase Benson, Kyle Finch and Michael Jobman all used their redshirt years to their advantages, putting on size and strength in an effort to break the suddenly deep rotation this fall.

“We’ve invested in the front and you can see that,” Gregorak said. “We have legitimate depth at our front four spots. We have to keep them healthy, keep them working, keep them learning and just keep fostering what they already have. I think it’s a real leadership group. You have a lot of veterans there.

“It’s a talented group but they also know how to work. That’s why our love our top eight right now.”

Montana State second-year defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak/ by Colter Nuanez

Montana State second-year defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak/ by Colter Nuanez

Choate is a revered defensive line coach who had successful stops at Florida and Washington before taking his first college head coaching job in December of 2015. At Florida, he helped mentor Dante Fowler, who went on to be the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft. At Washington, he helped Hau’Oli Kikaha lead the country in sacks playing next to Danny Shelton, the No. 12 selection in that 2015 draft.

During his first season at Montana State, Choate saw his defensive line disintegrate before Big Sky Conference competition even began. Jeffries, a former Class AA Defensive MVP from Kalispell, suffered a torn ACL in fall that eventually ended his career prematurely. Wilcox, a hulking physical specimen who spent a season at Grambling State before coming to MSU, suffered his third serious knee injury in fall camp and retired before the season.

Fa’anono, a starter since his true freshman season in 2014, suffered a foot injury that required surgery just a few plays into MSU’s season opener against Idaho. LaBoy suffered a neck injury in MSU’s second game, like Jeffries an injury that ultimately cost him his career.

Montana State second-year head coach Jeff Choate/ by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State second-year head coach Jeff Choate/ by Brooks Nuanez

In Montana State’s 38-21 loss at Southern Utah, MSU’s sixth straight conference defeat to start the Choate era, the Bobcats rolled out a defensive front featuring walk-on nose tackle Matt Brownlow, Ferriter, himself a walk-on from Butte Central, Wright and Grant Collins, a converted middle linebacker playing his first season at Buck end.

Marks, at the time a 225-pound true freshman who less than a year earlier was playing Class A ball at nearby Belgrade High, and Woody Brandom, a redshirt freshman converted tight end, provided some semblance of depth.

That lack of experienced depth not only hindered MSU’s production — the Bobcats tied for last in the league with 15 sacks in 2016 — but also put a ton of wear and tear on Yates, who missed two games and played part time in three others, and Wright, who gutted through an ailing elbow for most of his sophomore season.

With Fa’anono back in the fold, Hayashi emerging as a senior leader, Yates looking more svelte — he lost almost 20 pounds to get down to 290 — Marks up 25 pounds to 250 and Benson appearing to be ready to contribute, all of a sudden a once-thin group appears to be one of MSU’s most robust.

Montana State second-year defensive line coach Byron Hout/ Brooks Nuanez

Montana State second-year defensive line coach Byron Hout/ Brooks Nuanez

“Any time we have more depth, it means guys are taking less reps and are more fresh,” said Hout, a former Boise State linebacker. “That allows guys to get out there and have a little more in their tank when they are rushing the passer. They are not spending all they have for eight plays in a row. They might be going four plays and then come out. Having depth right now helps us not only get a lot of guys reps but keep us fresh and hopefully that keeps us healthy down the line.”

Through 11 days of fall camp, Collins has been the No. 1 Buck end exclusively. Yates, Wright and Hayashi have taken turns with the starting defense on the inside while Benson has earned reps against the starters in recent days as well. Depending on the situation, Fa’anano and Marks appear to be co-No. 1s at the end spot opposite Collins with Ferriter playing spot snaps.

“Every single one could play as a 1,” said Yates, a Colstrip native and former Class A state champion wrestler. “Chase Benson, he’s a great young player. Derek Marks, Tyrone, everyone is playing at that level where they could be starters. It will be great for us to roll in as the 1s, the 2s, roll dudes all the time will be good for us.”

While teammates dropped all around him, Wright proved to be an example of durability during his first year as a starter. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder wore a heavy brace on his elbow for the entire season but still managed to make 23 tackles, half a tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries to earn honorable mention All-Big Sky honors.

Wright, Ferriter and Collins are the only MSU defensive linemen who played in all 11 games during MSU’s 4-7 season. While each individual defensive lineman might get fewer snaps per game, the prospects of rotating more heavily has Wright “so excited.”

MSU defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)

MSU defensive tackle Zach Wright (96)

“The toughest thing was when we started losing guys last year,” Wright said. “When you get in those long drives, those long games and you don’t have any fresh legs, that’s tough. What I’m really excited about is that our second string is really, really strong, They aren’t any less than we are. It’s like Round 2.”

Few people expected Marks to play as a true freshman, let alone start the second half of the season when he first arrived on campus. He ended up playing in 10 games, notching 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and half a sack despite being undersized. In the off-season, he dedicated himself to building up his body and now has 250 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame.

“After I saw Derek for a week in fall camp, I was not surprised he played,” Yates said. “When you see how he works, it’s no surprise. That dude works his butt off every day. He’s hustling around, never takes a play off, never takes a drill off. He eats right, does everything. I’m not surprised at all with the way he’s playing.”

Wright praised Marks for his intelligence and his steady work ethic. Marks attends every optional Saturday morning lift, Wright said, something that’s earned the respect of his teammates.

“I feel a lot more comfortable being out here and having a full year under my belt,” Marks said. “Things are just starting to slow down and now it’s time to compete.”

Montana State sophomore defensive end Derek Marks (95) and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chase Benson (50)/ by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State sophomore defensive end Derek Marks (95) and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Chase Benson (50)/ by Brooks Nuanez

As upper classmen, Wright, Yates, Hayashi and Fa’anono all expect to see plenty of time. Choate and Hout both said they have high expectations for the veterans and count Marks in that group. Benson is the one young player who could break into the rotation and make an impact.

The 6-foot-4 Helena High product did as much laboring in the weight room during his redshirt year as any Bobcat. The long-limped yet stout redhead reported to camp at 275 pounds, up 33 pounds since signing with MSU in February of 2016.

“If I looked like him, I’d walk around with sleeveless shirts every single day, including winter,” Gregorak said. “He’s a guy who needs to keep learning. He works. He’s one of our weight room war daddies. He looks the part. He is a well put together kid. I’m proud of the summer he had.”

Benson has been a thorn in the sides of MSU’s interior offensive linemen throughout fall camp. He is strong enough to hold the point of attack and free up MSU’s inside linebackers. He is also among MSU’s best interior pass rushers and is battling for a spot in Montana State’s starting ‘nickel’ package.

“Chase is like grown man in the body of a kid,” Wright said. “He blew our mind because he’d get in there and you’d see this freshman just throw up these insane weights in the weight room. He’s super strong and he has great speed, a great athlete. Getting to see him develop and turn into a better football player, he’s going to contribute so much to this football program.”

Montana State's defensive line/ by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State’s defensive line/ by Brooks Nuanez

Fa’anono’s return has brought “a calming force” to the defensive line room, Choate said. Yates worked in a lumberyard and focused on his diet, giving him relatively slimmer physique that has increased his flexibility and explosiveness. Physical healing and development is prevalent throughout the group. It’s noticeable within the group and the other Bobcat defenders are taking notice as well.

“You can definitely tell they are bigger, stronger and more deep,” MSU senior captain outside linebacker Mac Bignell said. “The benefit is they can get double teamed and it leaves the linebacker unblocked. That just means we are getting free tackles left and right.

“We get all the glory and they have to suffer through the pain.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. Quotes gathered by Brooks Nuanez. 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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