Analysis

Montana State Position Battles: Defensive Tackle

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With Montana State beginning its first fall camp under Jeff Choate this week, Skyline Sports will break down MSU’s roster by highlighting prominent battles for playing time in each position group.

Today’s position: Defensive tackle

The players: Zach Wright (a 6-foot-2, 260-pound sophomore), Fou Polataivao (a 6-foot-1, 305-pound junior college transfer) and Robert Wilcox (a 6-foot-1, 250-pound senior)

What’s at stake: Despite the presence of three seniors on the interior defensive line last season, the Bobcats were gashed in the run game consistently, particularly with inside zone and read-option plays. New head coach Jeff Choate will be the first to tell you that protecting MSU’s inside linebackers and safeties in the run game will be a crucial key to correcting the defensive struggles that have plagued the Bobcats the last two seasons.

In an effort to bolster the interior defensive line, Montana State moved Wright inside permanently during spring drills. MSU also moved former defensive end Robert Wilcox to the defensive tackle spot with positive results. Choate hit the transfer market for all three levels of his defense, landing Polataivao and nose guard Brandon Hayashi from the California junior college ranks.

Finding a solid player to perform next to sophomore nose guard Tucker Yates will be a key to Montana State shoring up its defense and solidifying its starting lineup on that side of the football.

Zach Wright rushes the passer against Fort Lewis in 2015

Zach Wright rushes the passer against Fort Lewis in 2015

How they fared in 2015: After a solid spring and a good start to fall camp his redshirt freshman season, Wright looked primed to earn playing time at defensive end last fall. But he suffered a severe ankle sprain that cost him the first half of the 2015 season. The New Braunfels, Texas native appeared in five games mostly on special teams and notched one tackle.

Since transferring from Grambling State in the spring of 2013, Wilcox has shown flashes of his power and his ability to win one-on-one matchups from his former defensive end position. But his Bobcat career has been marred by knee injuries. He missed the 2013 season after tearing his ACL. He missed the 2014 season after tearing his patella tendon. Last season, he regained at least some health and broke into the starting lineup during conference play. He played in eight games, notching 14 tackles and a tackle for loss.

At the College of San Mateo last fall, Polataivao registered 18 tackles with two sacks and one fumble recovery.

“Fou was a productive player at a really good school and we’re excited to sign not only a player of his caliber but also a player of his character,” Choate said when the Medford, Oregon native was signed. “He gives us positional versatility in the defensive line, and he’s a productive, well-coached player from a good school that plays a good brand of football.

The case for Wright: Wright ended the spring session as the starter at MSU’s defensive tackle position. What he lacks in size and girth he more than makes up for with a relentless motor, toughness and grit. Wright’s ability to give his all on every snap will be a key if he wants to earn the starting position. He must prove that he is durable and can stay healthy through the rigors of playing in the inside.

Defensive tackle Fou Polataivao

Defensive tackle Fou Polataivao

The case for Polataivao: Polataivao has the ideal size for a defensive tackle. But junior college players with his measurable are always hit and miss in the Big Sky Conference. How will he adjust to life in Bozeman? Will he be able to acclimate to the rigors of Division I football quickly? Why would a productive, physically imposing player still be available in late spring? If Polataivao can provide answers, he will be in the mix for a starting spot.

The case for Wilcox: Wilcox is the most athletic and most explosive of the three. He has the ability to rush the passer – he notched four sacks during the Triangle Classic spring game in Great Falls – and he should enter his final fall camp with a sense of urgency given his history of injuries. But will he be able to stay healthy while moving to the inside? At the very least, Wilcox gives Montana State a situational pass rushing option on the inside. With a good camp, he could contribute even more.

What they must accomplish during fall camp: Montana State has had issues at all three levels of its defense over the last two seasons. MSU has not had a dominant defensive tackle since Zach Minter graduated following the 2012 season. With the nature of offenses in the Big Sky and the tempo almost everyone in the league wants to play with, finding two capable players at every position is key, not the least of which a grueling position like defensive tackle. Wright must prove he can produce at an energetic level while staying healthy. So does Wilcox. Polataivao needs to acclimate to his new team quickly. The development of a solid tandem to pair with Yates will be a key to Montana State’s rebuilding defense.

Also on the roster: Sophomore Garrett Gregg (6-0, 280) spent most of his time at MSU since transferring from Utah State as a reserve offensive lineman. Following spring, his position switch was announced on the first depth chart. He is listed as MSU’s fourth defensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Riley Griffiths earned playing time during spring before breaking his hand, an injury that required surgery. He suffered complications after the operation and will spend the fall semester in his home in Issaquah right outside Seattle. Joe Naotala, a junior college transfer from Palomar College who came to MSU before last season, has left the Bobcat football program. Montana State also signed freshmen Chase Benson (Helena), Kyle Finch (Dillon), Michael Jobman (Huntley Project), Derek Marks (Belgrade) and Lewis Kidd (Minneapolis) from the prep ranks in February. Each has a to be determined position after one day of fall camp.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Right 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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