Almost a dozen NFL scouts sat on the roof just outside the press box at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on a smoky Saturday afternoon in August. The hometown Grizzlies were kicking off the college football season a week early and the juggernauts of small-school college football were in town.
Because North Dakota State’s trip to Missoula to play Montana was the only college football game of the week, scouts from the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texas, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills and at least four others from unidentified teams sat taking in the action.
Montana and NDSU was the only show going in the country but the game also featured a slew of potential NFL players. For the Bison, senior quarterback Carson Wentz is a projected 2nd-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Senior left tackle Joe Haeg could go as high as the third round. Fullback Andrew Bonnet and punter Ben LeCompte have realistic shots to get into NFL training camps. For Montana, senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes could play his way into the last round of the NFL Draft with a stellar showing at his Pro Day. Senior wide receiver Jamaal Jones is a possibility to get a training camp invite. Senior Jeremiah Kose is rated as one of the top 29 inside linebackers in the country.
As the instant classic played out — Joey Counts scored a touchdown with two seconds left to give Montana a 38-35 upset win — the scouts observed the collection of talent as two of the FCS’ most storied programs battled. Several of the on-lookers liked what they saw in Wentz, a 6-foot-6, 235-pounder with a rocket arm and Roethlisberger-like mobility. The scouts were also intrigued by the battle between Holmes and Haeg on the edge.
But each NFL representative had a puzzled look on their face when Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson let rip a lofting pass to the end-zone midway through the second quarter. The ball was thrown into one-on-one coverage. A tall, long player wearing No. 86 soared through the air to snare a 38-yard touchdown to tie the score 21-21.
“Who is 86?” the scout from the Jets asked the representative from the Raiders. “He’s not on my sheet either,” the Raiders talent evaluator said.
When each interested scout was informed that No. 86 was Ben Roberts, a player who had not stepped on the football field since the fall of his senior year at Sentinel High in 2010, the men seemed intrigued.
“I’m certainly making a note of this kid. Did you see how he jumps?” the scout from New York said.
Ben Roberts is a new name to the world of college football, but the former Washington State baseball player and three-sport prep star has been one of Montana’s best athletes for years. He’s just now getting a chance to show his stuff on the gridiron.
Montana State senior Taylor Sheridan grew up in Missoula as one of Roberts’ close friends before moving to Bozeman in 2007 and Littleton, Colorado before high school. On Saturday, Sheridan a captain defensive tackle for the Bobcats will play against Roberts, a senior wide receiver for the Griz as the former plays his fourth and final rivalry game while Roberts experiences his first appearance.
Sheridan remembers playing the video game “NBA Street” on the original PlayStation gaming system. The game is a “gem” filled “wicked” dunks and highlight reel displays by the virtual players, Sheridan said.
“We would go out to my basketball court after playing that and I swear to God, Ben would do every dunk from that game,” Sheridan said. “He has always been a crazy athlete.
“Ben’s a freak, man. I know people have seen the crazy catches he’s had this year. But dude is nuts.
Roberts has long been one of the standout athletes in the Treasure State. His football career is only now reemerging because of his prowess on the baseball field.
As a senior at Sentinel High in Missoula, Roberts set four state records by catching 108 passes (a state record) for 1,370 yards and 12 touchdowns his senior season. His career totals of 235 catches for 3,373 yards and 31 touchdowns all are state records by a wide margin. He also tied the state record with 18 catches in one game. Roberts was a Class AA first-team All-State selection in basketball as a junior after averaging 15 points and nine rebounds per game.
But baseball has always been true love. Despite holding full scholarship offers following his senior football season from Washington State, UNLV, Montana and Montana State, Roberts elected to forgo his final season of basketball to strictly concentrate on getting selected in the Major League Baseball Draft.
In 2010, he led the Missoula Mavericks to the Montana State AA American Legion title by smashing 17 home runs and ripping 19 doubles. In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Roberts in the seventh round of the MLB first-year player draft.
He entertained the thought of playing both baseball and football at Washington State before eventually deciding on America’s pass time. He struggled to find a rhythm, hitting .136 in 23 starts as a redshirt freshman centerfielder in 2013. In 2014, he hit .289 with seven extra-base hits and 21 RBI in 44 starts. He reached base in 22 of 25 Pac-12 starts.
If a player signs to accept a four-year scholarship in baseball, the player is ineligible for the draft for three years. In June of 2014, Roberts went undrafted. Last spring, Roberts hit .211 in 46 starts. He struck out a team-high 48 times in 152 at-bats.
“I wasn’t hitting the way I thought I could and I kind of felt it wasn’t meant to be anymore,” Roberts said. “I don’t know what it was, it’s tough to say but baseball is just so mental. It started to drain on me. I battled and battled as long as I could. I had to give up after awhile.”
In June of this year, the draft came and went again. Roberts graduated from WSU with a degree in social sciences in May. He sat down with Montana first-year head coach Bob Stitt in June after he went undrafted again. He wanted to come home.
Roberts was accepted to the media arts program at Montana. He began working out with the Griz players in July. He started to get acclimated to the game during fall camp.
“I hadn’t played football for almost five years,” Roberts said. “I knew I could do it but would I still be as good as I was in high school and feel as comfortable out there as I did? There was a little bit of that but I was confident in myself.”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder who boasts just short of a 40-inch vertical has been able to dunk since he was in eighth grade. Still, few thought he would make the splash he’s made as Montana is on the brink of another playoff berth. UM is 6-4, meaning a win would put the Griz in the post-season.
Roberts has proven his leaping 38-yard touchdown catch against NDSU was no fluke. This season, he is second on the Grizzlies with 48 catches. His 425 yards are third on the squad and he’s caught five touchdowns, one away from the team lead.
“He definitely surprised us,” Stitt said. “We didn’t know what we were getting with Ben. For him to come in and to help us as much as he has really early, I mean first game he caught a touchdown and helped us win that ball game. He’s been so solid.
Montana has endured a rash of injuries at quarterback. The Griz have played three quarterbacks behind an offensive line that has been missing starting center Ben Weyer all season and has struggled to protect the passer for most of the campaign. Roberts forged his way into the starting lineup at one of Montana’s inside wide receiver spot, serving as a mobile blocker on occasion as well as providing a deep threat when lined up in the slot.
“What it gives us is the ability to keep the H-back on the field to help our run game and then put a bigger, more physical one-on-one type body out there with Ellis and Jamaal,” Stitt said. “Before we had Ben in at the H-back position on the inside and we had a smaller Z type, Wes Welker type of guy (Chase Naccarato) and against man coverage, it just wasn’t as affective. Now we have three bigger bodies out there along with our H (Josh Horner), which is a big body. They all feel like they can bang and take people on one-on-one and you really have speed on the outside. And Ben can run by some people also. It’s helped us a ton.”
As Roberts gets set for his first Cat-Griz game, he sometimes wonders how his career might have played out had he played football right out of high school. But he also considers the potential injuries he’s avoided. He enjoyed his time in Pullman and made many friends while living on the Palouse.
It would be a long shot for Roberts to earn chance at the next level but it’s certainly not impossible. His upside is tremendous and his athleticism is evident upon first sight of the explosive athlete. If he gets the chance, Roberts said he will certainly give it a try.
For now, Roberts is simply enjoying the final few weeks of a reality he never thought would be his.
“It’s been definitely more than I expected,” Roberts said of playing for the Grizzlies. “I didn’t really have any idea of how this season was going to go or how it was going to turn out but it’s really been a blessing. I’m very lucky to be able to have this chance. It’s been special to be able to play at Washington-Grizzly Stadium after all the years of standing up in the stands watching. I’ve never known what it’s like to run out of the tunnel and that’s been something special. I’m very lucky.”
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