BOZEMAN, Montana — Jeff Choate has known guys like Josh Hill before.
Hill is generously listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds. He looks nothing like a prototypical Division I inside linebacker. He is miniature in status compared to fellow Montana State inside linebackers like Michael Jobman, a 6-foot-5, 242-pounder, or Chad Kanow, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder.
Hell, Hill looks small compared to Brayden Konkol, MSU’s 6-foot-2, 218-pound starting strong safety.
In his years roaming the West and coaching football at all levels, Choate had learned to never judge a book by its cover.
“We’ve all known that guy you knew you didn’t want to mess with in a bar fight because even though he was the smallest guy, he knew how to strike,” Choate said. “That’s the guy who will put you down.
“Josh Hill is that guy.”
Of course, Hill has saved the hitting for the football field. But when he brings it between the white lines, he is one of the most technically sound tacklers in the Big Sky Conference and one of Montana State’s most productive defensive players.
“He’s a baller, a great player who knows everything about our defense and he loves to hit,” Kanow said before the 2019 season began. “He’s so tough. And that helps set the tone for our entire team.”
In the first November game of the 2019 season, Hill returned to the starting lineup for the first time in over a month. He looked back to his old self, flying around the field as one of the primary playmakers for a Montana State defense that stuffed Southern Utah.
Choate said “Josh Hill played as well as he has played in awhile” after Hill piled up eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble as part of MSU’s 42-point first half run in a 42-7 victory to move to 6-3 this season.
“He’s a tremendously instinctual football player,” Choate said. “He does not look like much walking around the fieldhouse, I’ll tell you that but you watch him close, he is unbelievable.
“He’s a technician as a tackler. Strike timing has a lot to do with it.”
So does fortitude, self-confidence and the ability to never quit fighting. Regardless of what the next month of the season entails for Hill and the Bobcats, the Kalispell product has already won one of the most difficult fights of his life.
He is back on the field playing the game he loves after missing all but MSU’s final game last season after having off-season back surgery that nearly forced him into retirement.
“There was a while there where I didn’t know if I was going to play again,” Hill said. “I didn’t know if NDSU was going to be my last game. I didn’t know if Cat-Griz 2017 was going to be my last game.
“I just feel lucky and blessed to be out here and be a part of this and try to look at every day as a blessing.”
It’s no great revelation that it takes toughness to play college football, particularly at a high-impact position like inside linebacker. But Hill’s perseverance has been particularly noteworthy during a career that has seen the former Montana Class AA Defensive Player of the Year overcome obstacles ranging from a lack of size to an ailing back that has inhibited his daily life for quite some time.
Before his freshman year of high school, Hill and his family moved from Tucson, Arizona to Kalispell be closer to relatives, a transition that Hill said is “the best thing that ever happened to me.” Hill attended Glacier High, a school that had opened less than a decade earlier trying to build a football tradition under well-respected head coach Grady Bennett.
Hill was ultra-productive as a junior and a senior, earning Class AA first-team all-state honors each year. As a senior, Hill was the top defensive player in Montana and helped lead the Wolfpack to their first state title in school history.
At Glacier under Bennett’s direction, Hill and a collection of future college football players — the last several years, Glacier has had the most alums playing in the Cat-Griz game — learned what to expect when entering a Division I program.
“The way Coach Bennett runs that program, he tries to mirror what a lot of college programs do so it wasn’t a tough transition,” Hill said. “It wasn’t like I came to Montana State and didn’t know how to lift, didn’t know how to watch film.”
The Glacier coaches went to a coaching clinic at the University of Washington on several occasions. In Seattle, they learned tackling drills and practice structure from Choate and other UW assistants.
“I got here and Choate is running me through the tape of the tackling drills he wants me to do and I had seen that exact presentation before,” Hill said with a laugh. “It was cool. I already had the base.”
Even with that base, many were skeptical if Hill’s productivity could transition to the college level. He signed to play for former MSU head coach Rob Ash before redshirting during the 2015 season, Ash’s last of nine mostly successful seasons at the helm.
When Choate took over, he instantly started talking about, developing and recruiting tall, long-limbed linebackers that looked about the opposite of Hill. But none of the taller, more prototypical players could beat out a fearless player with a nose for the football.
“I think I was a senior or junior in high school and I remember watching him and he was like less than 200 pounds and I was like that kid? But he’s a freak and he’s SO tough,” MSU junior outside linebacker Troy Andersen said earlier this season. “He has been battling throughout his career.”
Hill capped a standout redshirt freshman season by earning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week honors thanks to a signature performance in a 24-17 win over rival Montana in Missoula. Hill led UM with eight tackles and a tackle for loss while forcing a fumble and snaring an interception.
That performance capped a season in which Hill totaled 54 tackles, three tackles for loss and picked off two passes.
After that state championship run in high school, Hill first started feeling the back pain that would persist for years to come. A disk issue caused him to miss “a bunch of basketball games” and start concentrating on healing up. The nagging ailment “kind of go better when I got to college”, but flare ups were more common than not by the time he was a third-year sophomore.
Hill missed three games in 2017 but still managed to produce. He piled up 69 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, broke up five passes and forced a fumble.
“He’s one of the most savvy football players I’ve been around,” Konkol said earlier this season. “He smacks people and he flies to the ball.”
“Talk about a guy who has some football intelligence,” added MSU linebackers coach Bobby Daly, a former All-American during his playing days for the Bobcats more than a decade ago. “He’s a guy you can really tell has played a lot of football on Saturdays around here. He’s savvy in coverage, he’s aggressive in the run game and he really holds himself to a high standard.”
Smacking people and flying around have always come naturally to the good-natured Hill, a friendly young man with an unassuming demeanor that belies his ferocity on the football field.
“It’s a mindset. When you see somebody with the ball, you have to go put him on the ground. And you aren’t going to think about it. We do all these drills about leverage and how you are going to tackle and then when you go in the game, it just happens naturally. You just tackle that guy.
“It’s that mindset and it totally comes down to confidence. The confidence you build up over time.”
Over time, those repetitions can wear on a body. Hill took cortisone shots in his back for most of his sophomore year, although his medical supervisors told Hill that the relief from the injections was only temporary.
“The disk in there was causing a bunch of ruckus and I had a ton of nerve pain,” Hill said. “I started having issues with my left leg. During the winter, it wasn’t getting any better. I was doing physical therapy and it wasn’t really working. By spring ball, I was not running well at all and I was really uncomfortable.”
So Hill elected to have back surgery, a procedure called a microdiscetomy. A decision any athlete would certainly dread. During this surgery, portions of a herniated disc are removed to relieve pressure on the spinal nerve column. Hill’s first procedure came in April, then again in August. The second surgery meant he would not be invited to fall camp, he would not join the team until classes began and he would not play in a game until the final week of November.
“I’m never somebody who has missed games,” Hill said. “I played in every game in high school I played in every game my freshman year. That sophomore year was tough. But to sit out that entire year, I didn’t even know how to comprehend it really.
“It was so weird to be sitting on the sideline all the time and not being involved in anything. And it was a weird spot in my life too. I wanted to be a part of this so bad but I physically couldn’t. I really had to find other things to do to keep myself busy.”
Choate noticed Hill was struggling mentally. And a year later, he has seen one of his team’s only fifth-year seniors turn the corner.
“We missed him a lot,” Choate said. “Josh was trying to figure out what was going on with Josh last year and in fairness to him, that’s what his priority needed to be in terms of his health and making sure we were making the right decisions in terms of how he progressed with his football career and if there was going to be a football career.
“He was struggling but now that we have gotten through that, he’s in a much better place mentally. I love seeing a smile on the kid’s face.”
During his year of recovery, Hill dedicated himself to rehab and physical therapy. He worked out religiously at the Pitt, the training facility in Bozeman owned and operated by former Bobcat All-American Dane Fletcher. And when Hill needed to channel his energy into not thinking about football, he found solace surrounding Bozeman.
“Get out and fish, clear my mind. That’s my go-to when I need some time away: spend a day out on the river,” Hill said. “I need that time away, whether it’s an off-day where I can get out for an afternoon. I need the time away from everything I’m working on, school, football, life. I need make time to go to the river and clear my head.”
Hill participated in limited fashion during fall camp in August. He played spot snaps during MSU’s non-conference schedule, peaking with four-tackle performances against Western Illinois and Norfolk State. He did not play against Northern Arizona or Sacramento State, returning to notch four tackles again in a disappointing 16-12 loss to North Dakota.
But last week was the first week Hill looked like himself.
“I respect the living hell out of the guy,” said MSU fifth-year senior running back Logan Jones, himself a Glacier product. “He’s battled a lot of adversity, had a ton of injuries on his poor body. The fact that he can still be out here and do this, I think that ties back to the unselfishness of this team. It’s not about him. He’s here to play for his brothers and he loves this game.”
In the summer of 2015, Hill, Jones, Konkol, offensive lineman Mitch Brott, defensive end Marcus Ferriter, defensive lineman Byron Rollins and quarterback Brady McChesney played together for the first time in the East-West Shrine all-star football game. Five years later, all but McChesney remain on the Bobcat roster, the last remnants of Ash’s fingerprints on the program.
Hill calls that group some of his best friends. That group has been the heart and soul of MSU’s evolution under Choate and an influential factor in this group of Bobcats defeating the hated Griz three times in a row for the first time in more than three decades.
It’s those memories that have outweighed the pain, provided motivation and helped Josh Hill reach the final weeks of his football career.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and the guys that I played with, how to be a team, how to do something as a joint group,” Hill said. “I can’t do this by myself, I can’t go play football by myself every Saturday. There has to be 10 other guys on the defense that we are all on the same page so there has to be a lot of communication, organization that goes into it too that I will be able to take for the rest of my life.”
“The brotherhood, for sure, being around the guys every day, being around my friends and playing football with my friends every day, that’s what I will miss the most.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.