BOZEMAN, Montana — The word “prototype” has gone from buzzword to cliché to part of the college football lexicon during the 21st century. But one of the greatest players on planet is completely defying the concept of prototypical size when it comes to the interior defensive line.
Aaron Donald is not the first undersized defensive tackle to wreak havoc on the NFL. John Randle is perhaps the most famous and successful undersized man in the middle. But Donald has taken the notion to an extreme.
At 6-foot-1, 287 pounds, no one would call Donald prototypical. His top NFL peers like Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles or (6-4, 330 pounds), Ndamukong Suh (6-4, 313) and Calais Campbell (6-8, 310) are all significantly taller and more massive than Donald.
But Donald has mastered the art of hand fighting and timing. He uses his explosiveness and seemingly endless array of moves to beat interior offensive linemen time and again. Last season, Donald led the NFL with 20.5 sacks, giving him 59.5 sacks in his five season playing for the Los Angeles Rams. The two-time reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year signed the richest contract in NFL history, inking a six-year, $135-million deal that includes $87 million guaranteed.
The last three seasons at Montana State, Derek Marks has been a utility man, starting at “4I” defensive end as a true freshman in 2016, splitting his time between strong end and Buck end as a sophomore and rotating up and down the Bobcat defensive front last season.
With the addition of explosive and savvy edge player Amandre Williams, a 6-foot-2, 248-pound junior transfer from Washington, and the signing of graduate transfer Jason Scrempos, a towering 6-foot-6, 299-pound tackle who also comes from Washington, Marks’ versatility will again be in full display.
In an effort to get their best 11 players on the field defensively, Williams will be the slated starter at Buck end, bumping All-Big Sky edge rusher Bryce Sterk to the field side. Sterk led the Big Sky Conference in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (17) during the regular season in his first campaign at MSU after transferring from MSU.
Scrempos and junior Chase Benson are battling for the right to replace All-Big Sky nose tackle Tucker Yates, a senior captain and stalwart for last season’s Bobcats. At the 3-technique spot vacated by 2018 captain Zach Wright, Marks has the inside track despite his size.
The 6-foot-1, 250-pounder has never been at a physical disadvantage during his career despite his lack of prototypical size. He makes up for his lack of mass with elite hand-eye coordination, noticeably impressive hip bend and balance and a relentless motor. He studies the game at as high a level as any player in the Big Sky. So in the off-season, the Bobcat captain naturally studied Donald.
“I feel like Aaron Donald is changing the game from the d-tackle spot and what he does, how he rushes the passer,” Marks said. “Watching him, you see all the different ways to get to the quarterback versus just rushing off the edge.
“I have a smaller frame but being able to use that leverage to get under a guys’ pads. I feel like, and I say this with humility, but I’m faster being a smaller guy who is explosive who can still be twitchy off the ball.
“And you can affect the play, you are closer to the play every time.”
Montana State had one of the best defensive fronts in the Big Sky Conference last season on the way to an eight-win season that included a playoff berth and a postseason victory. Wright, Yates and fellow captain Tyrone Fa’anono all played pivotal roles. Yates, Fa’anono and Sterk all earned second-team All-Big Sky honors, although all three had arguments for first-team given MSU’s odd-man front scheme and the specific positions each played.
“I don’t think you can really equate how you will replace the leadership that Tyrone, Zach and Tucker gave us,” Montana State fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate said on Saturday. “But I really credit a lot of where the bar has been set to those three men. They worked hard, took a lot of pride in that unit and you can see guys like Derek Marks and Bryce Sterk who are stepping into those leadership roles.
“We have a lot of talent there so they can’t take downs off or someone is going to go by them.”
Although Fa’anono, Yates and Wright were three of the players who bought in the most quickly and whole-heartedly to Choate’s comprehensive program, each had limited diversity. Wright could play a little nose and Yates could play a little tackle. The 6-foot-2, 275-pound Fa’anono seemed out of place at best playing Buck end in 2017.
Now MSU has Sterk, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound athletic freak who can play as many as five positions on the front seven. The Bobcats have Williams, who will likely get snaps on offense while also holding down the Buck spot, subbing in at Sam linebacker and perhaps even playing inside linebacker. Marks can play three of the four defensive line positions at an elite level. Benson can handle nose or tackle, as can Scrempos. And at this point, you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone that do-everything junior Troy Andersen can’t play every position on the field save maybe boundary cornerback, nose guard and offensive line.
“If you have a guy who can just play nose and that’s all they can do, when you get into a four-down front, they have to come off the field,” Choate said. “Having a guy who has pass rush ability who has enough size to be able to hold up against the run but enough athleticism you don’t have to take him off the field on third and extra long, it’s a huge asset.”
Sterk’s length, speed, size and athleticism make him an elite athlete for the FCS level. Before Sunday’s practice, Wright, in attendance for the first time since exhausting his eligibility, joked that “Sterk led the league in sacks without even knowing much technique besides being the fastest and strongest guy on the field.”
Now that Sterk is playing on the strong side with his hand consistently in the dirt (or in 2019, the turf), he is acclimating to the position quickly.
“Biggest adjustment aside from having your hand in the dirt is you sometimes have to take on double teams from the guard and the tackle,” Sterk said. “Normally, I just have one-on-ones with the tackle. So that’s a little bit different. There’s some techniques and cheats you have to learn but nothing huge.
“It’s different. I’ve never played a four-I position like that. But it’s nothing like out of the water.”
Mitch Brott, a four-year starter at offensive tackle who has gone against Fa’anano, Sterk and Marks as much as any player, said Sterk is just as menacing lining up at end than he is lining up at Buck.
“He almost looks bigger with his hand in the dirt,” the 6-foot-6, 295-pound preseason All-American left tackle said with a chuckle. “Having him inside is going to help a lot. He’s a really long guy with a great get off. I’m excited to see what he can do this year.”
One of the trademarks of the Choate era has been the head coach and his staff’s willingness to move players positions. At least 20 different players on the MSU roster have moved positions or know how to play multiple positions, including All-Big Sky safety Brayden Konkol, MSU’s second-leading tackler as a Will linebacker as a sophomore in 2017.
The list of versatile players also includes Andersen, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2017 as a running back and linebacker and a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection as a quarterback last season who is now playing outside linebacker. It also includes Travis Jonsen, a team captain who came to MSU as a former 4-star quarterback who took recruiting trips to Penn State, USC and Oregon, among others, before ending up as MSU’s top outside wide receiver.
The latter two examples are ones that Marks said have influenced the defensive line in a positive fashion. If talents as prodigious as Jonsen and Andersen are flexible with their roles, why shouldn’t the Bobcat defensive front embrace the same attitude?
“It’s a good opportunity to just get play-makers on the field,” Marks said. “We want to get our best 11 guys on the field and the guys who are going to impact the game the most.
“I think it does speak to the humility of the guys and just wanting to win.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.