MONTANA MADE QB – what will it take to make the next great in-state gunslinger?


Many a character and many a head coach acting in the greatest rivalry in the West have spun similar versions of the same cliché; the Bobcats and Grizzlies will get their heart and soul from Montana but the two college football teams will find their arms and legs from outside the sacred confines of the Treasure State.

Although the cliché has affirmation in pure numbers, some of the greatest offensive skill players that grew up in-state became some of the most productive players in each the histories of Montana and Montana State football.

Great Falls native Tanner Bleskin is the Bobcats’ all-time leader in receptions (193) and receiving yards (2,816). Frenchtown native Cody Kirk scored a school-record 47 touchdowns while rushing for more yards than anyone at MSU other than Ryan Johnson.

Lex Hilliard, Kalispell’s finest, was a pure phenom for Montana, posting three 1,000-yard rushing seasons before getting drafted into the NFL. Drummond product Chasey Reynolds set most all-class prep rushing records before breaking most of Hilliard’s records at UM, eventually leading to a long and solid NFL career. Havre native Marc Mariani, like Reynolds a former walk-on, still ranks first in school history with 29 career touchdown catches.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the cliché is that the two most recent national titles claimed by Montana’s Division I football teams came behind the leadership under center from a couple of the state’s favorite sons.

Dave Dickenson, a multiple-time state champion and two-time Montana Gatorade Player of the Year  at Great Falls C.M. Russell High, went on to lead the Grizzlies to their first national championship in 1995.

Seven years later, John Edwards, a former state championship-winning quarterback out of Billings West, helped guide the Grizzlies to the 2001 national championship.

Montana has won or shared nine Big Sky Conference championships since then, including the 2009 title with Billings West alum Andrew Selle playing quarterback. Brady Gustafson was Montana’s starter in 2015 and 2016 during the first two years of the Bob Stitt era at UM. The Griz made the playoffs in 2015, extending a streak of 21 playoff appearances in 23 years.

Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson (3) /by Brooks Nuanez

Despite all of those affirmatives, starting quarterbacks for the Montana schools who prepped in the Treasure State have been few and far between. After Dickenson’s graduation, Montana has seen Edwards, Selle, Shay Smithwick-Hann (Kalispell native, started three games in 2012), and Gustafson start games under center.

At Montana State, since 1990, the list is even shorter: Jeff Tuss (Helena) and Rob Compson (Billings) in the mid-1990s, Kasey Harte (Bozeman) for a brief time in 1999 and Jake Bleskin (Great Falls) in relief of DeNarius McGhee and Dakota Prukop between 2012 and 2014. Mark Desin (Billings) also started a couple games in relief during the Mike Kramer era.

But Compson and Troy Andersen (Dillon, 2018) are the only in-state players who could be considered full time starters for the Bobcats over the last three-plus decades.

One factor in the dynamic of local products breaking into the lineup under center comes from the rural nature of the Treasure State as a whole. A perception exists, valid or not, that Montana quarterbacks get more limited training and development opportunities than out of state products.

And to be sure, many of the out of state products — Texas natives McGhee and Prukop along with Oregon native Travis Lulay and current starter Matt McKay (Raleigh, North Carolina) at Montana State; or Southern California product Cole Bergquist, Eugene, Oregon native Jordan Johnson or 2021 opening-day starter Cam Humphrey (Seattle) at Montana — have been talented enough to make it hard for all other quarterbacks, regardless of place of origin.

A primary factor in local Montanans who play for the Division I school often lies in the versatility and toughness of those who prep in the Treasure State. Often times, Montanans are promising if not raw quarterback prospects who also have great and diverse football skill sets, including toughness and grit that helps them have an earlier opportunity to break onto the colligate landscape at other positions.

Former Montana State quarterback Jake Bleksin in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

Currently at Montana State, McKay, a former transfer from North Carolina State who was a 4-star prospect coming out of high school in Raleigh, has helped guide the Bobcats on a five-game winning streak. But Tommy Mellott, a former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year from Butte, America, is trying to buck the notion.

Sure, Mellott has earned his most significant snaps at MSU on special teams, both covering and blocking on various kick units. And Mellott is yet to throw a pass at Montana State despite being on campus since last fall because of the pandemic impacted year of competition

But Butte’s finest is balancing both sides. He is contributing in a variety of fashions while still making a case he could be the next Treasure State product to quarterback a Montana team.

“It’s hard to find enough words to describe this kid’s character,” Choate, the former MSU head coach that recruited Mellott, said back when he signed.

“He’s a winner, one of the smartest guys in that school, one of the toughest guys in that school and one of the best athletes in that school and he’s going to be the same thing here at Montana State.

“He’s the type of young man who pushes your program forward not because of what they do between the white lines but because they have the big picture in mind. I can’t say enough about our excitement to have Tommy in the program.”

Last week in Montana State’s 45-7 win over Cal Poly, Mellott broke through. He ripped off a 74-yard touchdown run on a zone-read keeper, showing, daring anyone say, Troy Andersen-esque prowess in the open field.

Montana will likely start Kris Brown, a Bozeman High product and redshirt freshman, at quarterback for the foreseeable future because of a potentially season-ending injury to super senior Cam Humphrey. That means there are two legitimate quarterback prospects from the Treasure State trying to make waves Montana schools.

Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott (16) vs. Cal Poly in 2021/by Jason Bacaj

“He’s extremely athletic for that position and he’s a very bright individual,” Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said about Mellott earlier this season. “The ball in his hand, you would lean toward his running ability right now. But I think he made really good strides throwing the football through the course of the spring and fall camp.

“There’s a role on this team for Tommy with his athleticism and his strength. He’s extremely strong for a quarterback, runs well and he’s tough as nails. I like the competitor he is and I know he will contribute.”

Brown, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who grew up in Southern California before finishing high school in Bozeman, threw for 240 yards and a touchdown in Montana’s 31-14 win over Dixie State last week in his first start as a Griz.

“Correct mistakes, learn from them, play better and with the quarterback position, there’s a lot of moving parts,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “It’s managing the game, making the throws, getting the checks, all those things. I thought Kris did just a fine job today. I was impressed with him.

“He hadn’t started a game since high school. It wasn’t a simple game plan. We didn’t simplify anything. I thought he did a good job. I think he will take direction this week and play even better next week.”

The last time quarterbacks each from Montana started in the Montana-Montana State rivalry game came in 1995 when Compson was thrust into action due to an injury of Tuss while Dickenson was in the midst of his Walter Payton Award-winning senior season.

Vigen’s insight is also reminiscent of why so many talented athletes have come to the Bobcats or Grizzlies only to end up somewhere else than quarterback.

Sometimes, like in the case of Griz starting strong safety Garrett Graves of Eureka who played quarterback upon arriving in Missoula only to stand out on special teams and promptly find himself playing safety, early opportunity leads to a position transition.

Just broadly on the Griz roster, senior All-American linebacker Jace Lewis (Townsend) is playing a different position than he was recruited at. Other former Montana-bred quarterbacks who are headlining Montana include captain senior right tackle Dylan Cook plus rotation running back Junior Bergen (Billings Senior), starting junior wide receiver Mitch Roberts (Missoula Sentinel), contributing linebackers Braxton Hill (Anaconda) and Levi Janacaro (Missoula Big Sky); along with safety Ryder Meyer (Fairfield) and Colter Janacaro (Missoula Big Sky). A caveat: one of the aforementioned was recruited to Montana to play quarterback.

Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott (16) makes a tackle on kickoff vs. Northern Colorado in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

At Montana State, the scenario is similar, although there’s no in-state players who were recruited to MSU to play quarterback and then switched. But there’s plenty of former QBs on the roster. And despite Vigen’s praise of Mellott, his presence on special teams, in run and pass game packages and his appearance in practice and games at positions other than quarterback and wide receiver reveal a hedging of bets at the very least.

“Growing up and working through high school, I always took a lot of pride in all of our running and lifting,” Mellott said. “Having that competitiveness and diversification of your athleticism is key.

“I think a lot of programs recruit quarterbacks just because traditionally, they know the ins and outs of the offense and of football and they’re great leaders and at the college level, that’s really able to convert to a lot of different positions. So that’s kind of where I’m finding myself right now.

“There’s one quarterback on the field and that’s not always you. So you see where you can contribute.”

Mellott isn’t the only Gatorade POY-winning quarterback playing for a Montana school.

Carson Rostad won the award as a junior at Hamilton High. The younger cousin of former Griz No. 37 and eventual NFL linebacker Jordan Tripp is a 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete who can run and was an all-state defensive player in high school as well. He might’ve had a chance to develop at QB if the 2020 season would’ve played out. But during the endless off-season, Rostad was moved to linebacker.

It’s not an uncommon phenomenon. Helena native Mike Ferriter, the current offensive coordinator at Idaho State, is one of the leading receivers in Montana history. Torrey Thomas quarterbacked Dillon to state championships under the guidance of his head coach father Terry before becoming an All-Big Sky safety at Montana. From current the No. 37 to current secondary coach Shann Schillinger, who played in the NFL, many Griz former and current played quarterback in high school.

Montana linebacker Levi Janacaro (36) celebrates a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown vs. Cal Poly in 2021/by Blake Hempstead

“You need a good player at that position, there’s no doubt about that and I don’t like to think one position is more important than the others because everything works together but that position is the most important one,” Hauck said. “You can win without a quarterback but it’s way harder than if you’ve got one.

“We’ve had some terrific kids over the years from the state of Montana at that position. We are going to recruit Montana first so if we have a quarterback in Montana we like, we are going to recruit him.”

It’s a different dynamic though than playing quarterback in high school and being brought in as a quarterback in college as well. Mellott could be the next Treasure State product to start under center for the Bobcats. But for now, he’s just happy to get on the field however he can.

“The coaching staff just wanted to use my athleticism, a guy sitting in the quarterback room in a traditional position that in most places in the United States, I’d probably be on the sideline, but this staff keeps giving me opportunities to get on the field,” Mellott said. “ I’m just trying to contribute to this team however I can.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. 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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