Daniel DaPrato is quickly becoming a hot commodity in the coaching world.
The Montana State third-year assistant has helped the Bobcats improve markedly on special teams as the unit’s coordinator. While tutoring MSU’s tight ends, he helped turn 2014 senior Tiai Salanoa into the Big Sky Conference’s first-team all-league selection.
As the Bobcats dive into spring drills, DaPrato all of a sudden has stability among his specialists — sophomore kicker Luke Daly and senior punter Trevor Bolton return after All-Big Sky campaigns — but a slew of new faces in his tight ends room. Salanoa and Lee Perkins graduate. Junior Austin Barth is the only Bobcat tight end who played last season. Highly touted Texas product Curtis Amos and former Billings West quarterback Wilson Brott, a walk-on, are fresh off redshirt season. And it’s been a transfer from the FBS that’s turned the most heads during spring ball.
Last August, Montana State landed Miami (Fla.) transfer tight end Beau Sandland. Because of the timing of the transfer, Sandland sat out last season. Now the 6-foot-6, 260-pound former junior college All-America will look to maximize his one season in MSU’s explosive offense.
On the evening of Wednesday, March 18, DaPrato sat down with Bobcat Beat to talk about transition from recruiting his native California to recruiting Texas, what he expects of his new group and where the Bobcat return units go with the departure of Shawn Johnson. For full audio of this interview, click here
Bobcat Beat: First of all, let’s talk about spring ball. To me, my No. 1 first impression was your new tight end. I’ve seen him in street clothes, but man, that guys is a freakin’ physical beast, man.
DaPrato: “Yeah, he’s a man. He is a man amongst boys. He’s a specimen, now. It’s one of those deals where we need to get him going in the right direction. He’s going to be just fine. He’s just a great looking specimen. I don’t know what else to tell you. He can run, he can bend, he can sink, he’s powerful. His arms are bigger than most people’s legs. He’s a good looking cat so we are excited to see what he can do this spring and obviously in the fall. We are definitely going to find out what he can do.”
BB: How much did he absorb in the year that he redshirted?
DaPrato: “Very, very little, which is a good thing. I mean, he came in in fall camp. He basically got zero work with us. He was just doing scout team because he was ineligible. As far as were he’s at, he’s starting fresh and it’s good. There will be a little bit of a learning curve for a little while. He literally joined in the middle of fall camp but that was the best work I did in fall camp was recruiting him. He’s a stud. We are excited about him.”
BB: Do you feel like you can line him up all over the place?
DaPrato: “That’s the plan. We are planning on finding out what he can do. Based on his ability to stretch the field, there will be no problem moving him around. But that’s what this spring is for is to find out what we can do with him and see what we can do.”
BB: You lose two seniors in Tiai Salanoa and Lee Perkins but you’ve got some guys who have been paying their dues in (junior) Austin Barth and (redshirt freshmen) Wilson Brott and Curtis Amos. How do they react to this monster joining the group?
DaPrato: “At the end of the day, everyone is excited because if he can do what everyone thinks he can do, it’s going to make our football team better. But as you know in the past, we’ve had two, three tight ends on the field at multiple times in multiple situations. Everybody has to earn their spot and Beau by no means is our starter or has the spot by any means. He’s got to go out there and earn it. They are excited and it’s going to help our football team. He’s got the ability to be in line — he’s 258 pounds right now — and he is running very well.”
BB: Yes, he runs well. Austin Barth is maybe the guy who is affected by this the most because you got a stud transfer and you also have Curtis Amos coming off a redshirt. He’s a highly touted guy. Where’s Austin’s mind at as far as what his role is going to be?
DaPrato: “I think Austin is in a great place. I think Austin is a competitive guy who’s been here and knows the system and is going to compete his butt off every single day. I think Austin’s mindset is in a great place right now. He’s made HUGE strides in the two years I’ve been here with him. He was a quarterback before I got here. SO everything was brand new the first semester I had him. This is going on our third year and the strides he has made have been awesome. For him to be behind Tiai and Lee the last two seasons has really helped him not have to be throw into the fire.
“But two years ago at Northern Colorado as a redshirt freshman when he had to get thrown in, he got thrown in and played very well and he did what we asked of him last year and made huge strides. So I expect a huge jump out of him this spring which is going to help this football team. And we are going to need him. I think he’s going to do an awesome job. His mindset is awesome right now. He’s fired up because he is out there competing. The last two years, it has been that he’s basically the new guy, the third-string guy. Now he’s got an opportunity to compete to be the starter and compete for some playing time.”
BB: Amos looks like he put on a little weight. He looks good. That’s a get off the bus first guy.
DaPrato: “He has put on some weight. He’s a good looking cat who’s a great student of the game. We are a really good place. This is a unique spring for me because we are teaching guys where as in the past, it’s been making minor adjustments to fundamentals and techniques. Here, we have three guys who are learning the system. In a four-man room right now, we have three who are completely learning the system. So there’s a lot of Day 1 teaching that in the past we just kind of skipped over and we were working on Day 16 on Day 1. It’s been good, it’s been fun for me, I gotta be honest. And the guys have been enjoying it. It’s been good.
“Curtis has been great.”
BB: Losing him to the defensive side of the ball, did that hurt him at all?
DaPrato: “That probably hurt my pride more than anything. I just wanted to make sure we got him back (laughs).
“There was probably some fundamental stuff we could’ve worked but we’ve got plenty of time. He’s a real good student of the game.”
BB: He played a bunch of H-back in high school. Will you slide him into that role at all?
DaPrato: “Yeah. He’s a moving piece. He has the ability to move around. He can be flexed out and moved around to stretch the field. He can be the wing, he can be in the backfield. Which we do. Shoot, we did that with T and Lee, put them in the backfield a little bit. That’s something we will continue to grow on. But he can definitely be that type of guy.”
BB: Does your group have as much clout when it comes to offensive game planning now that you don’t have two seniors in it?
DaPrato: “Right now, Beau’s a pretty good looking specimen so that gives you a little clout (laughs). I mean shoot, as far as game planning stuff, right now, going into spring, we are just going to run our offense. We will be able to sum that up better in fall camp but we are not going to…we are going to run plays against what we are seeing. They are not scheming us, we are not scheming them. We are just trying to play football. It’s different because guys are new but shoot, Beau’s a one-year guy. He will be in and gone so we are going to get the most out of him this season.”
BB: Coach Eck was just sitting in here. What do you think of the dynamic you have on the staff now? I thought Cramsey made a good point. It’s hard to replace a guy like Mac but now you have a bunch of like-minded individuals, young guys who have the same energy and attitude. What do you think of the continuity of this staff?
DaPrato: “I’ll be honest, we have been together as a full staff, this is our third day. We literally got together for the first time as a full staff on Monday. My fault, I was out of town. But we’ve had three days together and it’s been great.
“It’s tough to replace somebody who’s been a legend of a Bobcats for a long time, a staple of this program. Change is always hard but it brings new opportunities and it brings new faces and new techniques and things to our offense.
DaPrato is the monitor of study table, a group many players are required to go to in order to monitor their academics. During this interview, which was conducted in the evening during study table, sophomore cornerback Jaylen Price poked his head into DaPrato’s office to ask about borrowing a laptop. The conversation switches to the academic duties of the assistant coaches.
BB: What is the concept behind study table?
DaPrato: “It’s to give some guys some structure. It’s structure. We want to give guys structure so they have set aside times for them to get in here and put in some work and make sure they are staying on top of things. We have tutors that come in to study table and they work in specific areas with specific guys so they can have some structure to their day.”
BB: One thing that Coach Ash has done such a good job of building is a good relationship with the academic faculty. Do you use that on the recruiting trail when you are talking to guys, saying ‘Hey, this is a hard school but we can get you some help?’
DaPrato: “Oh yeah. The resources we have here are something we definitely, definitely use in recruiting one hundred percent.”
BB: Before we switch gears out of spring ball, special teams, that’s a spot where you do have some question marks particularly with losing Shawn Johnson. I know Gunnar Brekke was an all-league kick returner last year for you too. Who’s going to be the front-runners to go along side him? Mitch Griebel?
DaPrato: “So Mitch, his first return last year was 54 yards. His second was more than 40. Mitch did a phenomenal job for us. Losing Shawn John, he was and will be one of the most explosive returners in this conference. He’s not a guy who comes around every year. He’s a guy who comes around ever once in awhile. That’s a once every 10 years guy. Those guys don’t come around very often.
“He is tough to replace, but I will say Gunnar did an excellent job last year. A lot of teams kicked to him because they were kicking away from ShawnJohn. But Gunnar finished top 10 in the country and first in the conference in kick return yardage. He’ll do a really good job at kick returner again.
“Mitch has the opportunity to be back there. We will have some other guys competing. (Sophomore wide receiver) Jayshawn Gates has been back there, (sophomore wide receiver) Justin Paige has been back there. We’d also like to see what (redshirt freshman) Tavon Dodd can do back there. I think he could probably do some things back there for us as well.”
BB: How about punt returns?
DaPrato: “Punts, Mitch Griebel will be the starting punt returner. Gunnar, we put back there a little bit last year. Gunnar will get some looks back there. Jayshawn Gates will get some looks. And it’s up in the air from there. But those three guys.”
BB: You guys had some successful and somewhat elaborate schemes you used on kick teams last year. The returns you had against Sac State come to mind. Are you starting to see things click here a little more on special teams with what you’ve been teaching them schematically?
DaPrato: “Yeah, I think it helps the longer you’ve been here because it allows you to make some minor tweaks that guys are comfortable with the basics which makes you allowed to tweak some things. The continuity, the same schemes over time…obviously there’s modifications to it over time but we have great kids with a great understanding. The ability to have some minor tweaks really helps. I think our guys really guy into that and we have a great buy in with our staff, from the head football coach being involved to every coach on staff being involved. That’s helped us be successful on kick teams. It’s been good to have the same schemes over multiple years.”
BB: (Sophomore kicker) Luke Daly looked like he put on a little strength, a little weight.
DaPrato: “He’s looking really good athletically. He’s long and lean.”
BB: He’s been banging kicks thus far.
DaPrato: “It helps when you haven’t been kicking all day every day. That’s the tough part about fall when you try to hold guys back. I always talk about that. It’s like a fastball pitcher. There’s a reason they don’t pitch every day.
“From a specialist standpoint, it’s nice to have everybody coming back. We have our long snapper (Rocky Hogue), our punter (Trevor Bolton) and our kicker all coming back. That’s a real positive thing. Luke did some great things for us last year. We need to make some improvements. Trevor did some great things for us last year. We need to make some improvements. And same thing with Rocky. Very comforting having those guys back but we still have to find guys behind them to compete and continue to work and we can’t get complacent with where we are at by any means.”
BB: No competition anymore for Luke with Bolton strictly punting and Trevyn Thompson to Carroll. That was one of the main story lines from last year. How do you keep him motivated?
DaPrato: “To be the best. He’s got a great work ethic. And he’s got a great passion and desire for the game. To be successful, obviously for our football team, the better he is, the better our football team is. I would say to continue to drive and strive as a competitor in life to be the best you can be is something he does not struggle with by any means.”
BB: What do you see as his potential?
DaPrato: “He’s not reached his first level of anywhere near his ceiling. He’s got a high ceiling. He’s a long-levered kid who is very athletic and lean and long. He did a good job as a redshirt freshman. He’s going to make a huge jump this next year, which is going to be a real positive. We are very excited about him.”
BB: Matt Stewart, a highly recruited punter who sat out last year, what’s the plan with him?
DaPrato: “Matt is going to be competing this year. Obviously, Trevor did a really good job for us last year. Good problem to have, but he couldn’t get ranked nationally because he doesn’t have enough attempts, which at the end of the day, I tell Trevor and Rocky before every single game, I walk up to them just like I do every player and I wish them the best of luck. But with Rocky and Trevor, I tell them, ‘Hey, best of luck today, if we call on you, we are going to need you and we really hope you don’t play. That’s the goal every week: that they don’t touch the field.
“Trevor did a really good job for us last year. We ended up leading the country in net punting. That’s awesome. We are going to continue to do those things and hopefully by not punting a lot, that helps. But Matt is going to be out there trying to compete to get himself in the mix. And then we still have Jake, who did some punting for us and who also did some throwing for us back there, which is a nice dynamic to have. Trevor was 1-for-1 with his passes on the season but I’m more comfortable with Jack spinning 20-yard out routes than I am trying to have Trevor throw a screen.”
BB: Looks like Bleskin’s arm strength improved a little bit too.
DaPrato: “He’s looking good.”
BB: Those guys were throwing pills the first couple of days. Prukop’s deep ball?
DaPrato: “They were dropping dimes. When him and Paige are on the same page, no pun intended, look out. It’s Day 1 though, everyone is healthy, everyone is looking healthy and nice.”
BB: It’s Day 1 no doubt but you can tell a difference in Dakota. He’s grown up. You can tell. Last year, you can’t be the alpha dog you want to be when you aren’t the starter yet. You can’t get in guys faces because it’s like who are you? Now everybody knows. That’s going to be big for you guys.
DaPrato: “Absolutely. He’s a difference maker, now. He’s unreal.”
BB: He gave me such a good quote yesterday. He said, ‘Last year, it was me against three other guys. Now it’s me against the nation.’
DaPrato: “He’s a worker, now. He’s a stud. He’s a good one. Both those quarterbacks look good.”
BB: You guys just need to figure out how to get about three stops on defense and you’ll be just fine.
DaPrato: “We got the schedule set now, so that’s good.”
BB: That 10-week gauntlet is going to be brutal. Did you go anywhere for professional development?
DaPrato: “I went to Colorado. I went to North Texas. We did the Colorado as an offensive staff. Then I was down in Texas, spoke at some clinics there. It’s always good to get out.”
BB: What did you learn at Colorado?
DaPrato: “We did some stuff more in the passing game with him as far as what we’ve been working on. And then I met with Coach (Toby) Neinas who was down there, former Bobcat, and did some special teams stuff with him.
BB: He’s the special teams coordinator there, right?
DaPrato: “He’s doing just special teams there. He’s good. He’s a neat guy.”
BB: What did you guys like about that connection? What made you choose Colorado?
DaPrato: “They are doing some really good things in the passing game. Obviously, their record is what everyone is looking at. They were one of the top passing games in the country, though. They were top 25 in the country. They can do some things. And obviously (MSU running backs) Coach (Mike) Pitre was there so having a staff we knew, Coach Pitre knows those guys and I have a relationship with some guys there, so that always helps. When you have a connection, you can sit in on meetings and get some help.”
BB: Better than having them stick you in the janitor’s closest.
BB: North Texas, what was the connection there?
DaPrato: “I have a house that’s 20 minutes from Texas. Plus, (former MSU secondary coach) Noah Joseph used to be there and (former MSU defensive backs coach) Justin Gaines used to be there. I went down there when Noah was there and watched some spring practice, met their special teams coordinator. I know one of their Gas. I know some people down there. I’ve stayed in contact with them.”
BB: Is Dan McCarney still the head coach?
BB: So there’s the Iowa State connection with Bo Beck and Rob Ash and all that.
BB: The coaching world. All roads run together.
DaPrato: “Oh my goodness. So I was down there just watching with those guys, did a little clinicing so it was good.”
BB: Recruiting Texas was something new for you. You’d been in California for a long time.
DaPrato: “Texas high school football is incredible. The organization of the coaches…I was so impressed. Obviously the head coaches are guys. But the thing that was so striking about Texas is the assistant coaches. Now, they are damn near full-time guys but they were impressive. I mean impressive. It was neat to be a part of.”
BB: It’s like a mini-college state. You have guys down there are making money like college assistants.
DaPrato: “In a lot of cases, way more. Way more. And they don’t do anything. They just coach football. I’m saying they don’t teach. They just coach football and they are making way more than some college assistants. There’s some dudes making some cash. It’s big-time. It was good. I love it down there.”
BB: Where were you at?
DaPrato: “I was San Antonio through Austin. I had the whole I-30 corridor.”
BB: Because you took so many transfers, you guys didn’t get many guys (three) out of Texas.
DaPrato: “Jordan Hoy, the quarterback, that was (former secondary coach Brandon) North’s guy. And we got (defensive back Sidney) Holmes and (linebacker B.J.) Ojo out of Beck’s area.”
BB: Ojo, man, that guy is a stud. He looks the part.
DaPrato: “He’s a specimen too.”
BB: I did one of these earlier and Bo was telling me about that high school and just how many guys they got. They have a recruiting coordinator. Just for a high school.
DaPrato: “Most of those schools are like that. I went to 20 schools where I never even met the head coach. Dead serious, never met the guy. I’d ask who the coach was and I wouldn’t talk to them. I’d just talk to the recruiting coordinators.
“My first day down there, I went to nine schools and seven practices. You have an athletic period during the day that is a full blown practice. All of them. Everyday. Year round. And that doesn’t include any of the before or after school stuff. It is incredible. I went to an 11 a.m. Tuesday practice that had 19 college coaches at it. Now, they had one of the top corners in the country and the SEC and Big Ten, Pac 12, Big XII, everybody was there. But there was 19 coaches at 11 o’clock in the morning on a Tuesday. You don’t do that in California. You just don’t have the opportunity because it’s different rules. Texas plays under college rules. They are out there full padded, practicing. It was something else.”
BB: I read the other day that something like 340 Division I players came out of Texas this year. Because there’s so much talent, there might be a school that has 15 FBS guys on it. Do you think there’s guys who slip through the cracks because they might be like the 15th-best player on the team but definitely an FCS level guy?
DaPrato: “I definitely think there are and some of our prospects in the past have been like that and that’s what we have to continue to do. We don’t recruit the whole state of Texas. We hone in on the areas we are at and I think we’ve been successful doing that. We are going to continue to hit Texas hard. We will get some more guys out of there and we are excited about that.”
BB: What do you think the biggest learning curve for Jody Owens recruiting down there?
DaPrato: “It will just be his first time doing it. It’s always different your first time going out. But as far as the familiarity with the area and those things, you can’t have a better situation. And he has an experience to share with them. He’s from there, left there, came here, became a big-time player, got his education and now he’s back coaching. For him to be able to sit in someone’s home and be able to explain to them that he has something they can relate to. That’s an awesome, awesome situation to have.”
BB: He’s one of those guys too. Not highly recruited at all then he comes up here and he’s a four-year starter and the league MVP by the time it’s all said and done. Jody won’t let anyone slack either and he’s not scared to get in your face. Were you here when he was the captain?
DaPrato: “Worse yet, I was coaching against him. That was not fun. He’s a dude.”
BB: If he doesn’t get hurt, that Sam Houston State playoff game might have gone differently. He takes a helmet to the knee and it’s over. I’m glad he got back up here.
Are you excited to be back in Texas recruiting this next year since you won’t have to put such a premium on transfers?
DaPrato: “Yes, absolutely. And that was one of the tough things. There are very few…I don’t know what the numbers are today, but there use to be 140-something junior colleges in the country and more than 70 of them are in California. I didn’t have a single junior college in my area. That was a tough thing because we were focusing on bringing in so many other guys. I’m very excited about it.
BB: Did you feel pretty accepted down there since Montana State has had a footprint down there for awhile?
DaPrato: “Yeah, yeah, I really did. The neat thing about Texas recruiting is that Texas high school football is so important they are able to see and relate to how important Montana State football is. That is the connection that is the biggest deal. Every other school that is down there recruiting that is similar to our level…there is A&M, Baylor, UT, TCU, Houston and those are what kids grow up wanting to go to. Up here, kids grow up wanting to be a Bobcat. And they get to see the connection to how important it is. Football is king up here at Montana State just like it is down there. That’s what’s neat and that’s what I lke the connection about. We are very well received.
“It’s sometimes tough to get kids to go that far away from home, but when they are able to see how important things are up here, they love that.”
BB: It’s like Bo was saying, sometimes you have to tell the mom that the scholarship doesn’t include free plane tickets for the family. It is a long ways away and a leap of faith.
DaPrato: “You also tell momma that it’s only for four years. He’s coming back.”
BB: And he’ll get a good education. And if you are talking about FCS schools, you want to come to Bozeman more than you want to move to Nacogdoches.
DaPrato: “It’s tough because they are close and we have to battle that. But what we have to offer, they don’t. There’s not too many teams in the country that have what we are able to offer on game day. There isn’t and that’s a fact. So that’s what we have to sell to them and get them to be able to see. Our videos, through Garrett (Becker) and the things we are able to show them, these kids are like, ‘Are you serious? Is this for real?’ And I can say that is every weekend. Every other stadium you go to is partially filled. This is EVERY WEEKEND for us.”
BB: That’s the last thing we will talk about then. What do you think about the expectation you guys have built for yourselves and how much does that motivate you as a staff?
DaPrato: “Great problem to have. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. I wouldn’t be in this business for any other reason. Business, profession, whatever you want to call it. People ask me what I do and I say I mentor young men. They think I work for the state. And I say I work for Montana State. I’m a football coach.
“My expectation…there’s a big different between coaches’ expectations and support expectations. Our expectations don’t really change much. They are always the same. I’ve never gone into a game where I didn’t think I had a chance because if you think you are going to lose the game, why show up? I always have very high expectations and our kids do as well. We are going to play that well all the time and we are going to bust our asses to get to that point.
BB: The outsider expectations, do those ever weigh on you in that it is in a small community and you guys have to hear so much of it?
DaPrato: “No. If I let that affect me, I wouldn’t be a good coach. I have to have the same expectations no matter what. And all I can say on that is all of those things are great problems to have. If you don’t have those problems, you don’t have the support we have here and we have phenomenal support.”
BB: People caring is one of the hardest things to build.
DaPrato: “If people don’t have high expectations for us, we obviously aren’t doing our job. The higher the expectations get, the better we are doing our jobs. High expectations make you want to do better and I want to do better too. To have those high expectations is great and I want to continue to have those. Our expectation is to win today. We have the goals. You want to have THE HIGHEST expectations possible and we will continue to strive for that, no question about it.”