Big Sky Conference

ROTATION RIDE: Ralston uses multiple position changes as opportunity for growth

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MISSOULA — Mike Ralston never imagined his career would be like this.

The Montana senior never expected he’d have to go through a coaching change. The Eugene, Oregon native never expected he would sit at home while the FCS playoffs played out with the Grizzlies not involved. The Sheldon High product never expected he would spend a season trying to figure out how to play wide receiver.

He never expected he’d make his first start for the Grizzlies as a right tackle. And Ralston couldn’t be happier from the perspective he’s gained from his winding journey during his five years in the Garden City.

Griz-Valparaiso - Mike Ralston“This experience has made me be able to handle adversity,” Ralston said. “What I had in my head going into my career and what it has been are worlds apart. I think I did a good job of handling it in stride. When my opportunity came, I’m trying to take full advantage of it.”

Once upon a time, Ralston was a highly rated tight end who played at both Jesuit High in Portland and Sheldon in Eugene, among Oregon’s top prep programs. At Jesuit, he won state basketball championships in 2011 and 2012. On the football field, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound tight end played behind Doug Brenner, who went on to earn the starting center position for the Oregon Ducks in 2016.

Ralston spent his senior year at Sheldon, an Oregon 6A powerhouse coached by Lane Johnson, the uncle of former Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson. Ralston dominated on both sides of the ball, earning first-team all-state honors as a tight end and a defensive tackle as the Irish ripped off a perfect 14-0 record.

The hulking, athletic teenager who also earned all-state honors as a baseball pitcher committed to Montana on his 18th birthday. He had visions of playing a large role as a tight end in then-UM head coach Mick Delaney’s pro style offense. He redshirted in 2013, putting on 15 pounds to get up to 260. In 2014, he broke into the starting lineup, playing in 14 games and starting four for UM’s playoff qualifying season.

Following that year, Delaney retired, leaving Montana with a coveted head coaching opening. Thus started the constant changing that has trademarked Ralston’s career to this point.

Griz-Valparaiso -Mike Ralston pass protecting“Back then I expected to be a tight end my whole career,” Ralston said. “I didn’t see the whole coaching staff being done away with. It’s a lot different than I thought it would be. But looking back, it’s been a great experience. Getting to bounce around a lot, I’ve gained a lot more life lessons not only on the football field but off as well.”

Montana hired Bob Stitt, a revered offensive mind known for his up-tempo spread offense. But Stitt’s offense does not employ tight ends. Because of his credentials as a high school defensive lineman — he had eight sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss as a senior at Sheldon — former defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak welcomed him to the defensive side of the ball as a defensive end.

“In my head, that was the move I was the least happy with,” Ralston said. “I just always thought of myself as a tight end. But I made myself ready for it and tried to do the best I can.”

Although Ralston continued to thrive off the field — he earned Academic All-Big Sky Conference honors for the second straight season in 2015 — he struggled to crack the rotation on UM’s talented defensive front. He played in seven games and made just two tackles in 2015.

Entering his fourth year in the program, Ralston decided he felt more comfortable on offense. He moved to H wide receiver, the de facto tight end in Stitt’s four-wide offense. He struggled to find any upward mobility on the depth chart there, either. The 280-pounder simply looked out of place. The Griz found themselves out of place as well, losing four of five down the stretch to miss the playoffs for just the third time since 1993.

Montana offensive line coach Chad Germer

Montana offensive line coach Chad Germer

Midway through last season, Ralston and UM offensive line coach Chad Germer talked about the possibility of Ralston moving to the trenches. He began to practice with the offensive linemen the last month of the season last fall.

“He was out of the depth chart at the other spots and where we were depth-wise, it came together,” Germer said. “It’s something he’s mentioned that had crossed his mind earlier in his career. Going into his senior year, we figured if we were going to do it, do it now so we moved him midway though last year so he could get a jump start on it.

“He’s such a great teammate. He wants to do everything he can to help the team and personally, he just wants to play too. This was where he felt he could get on the field quickest.”

Ralston has always been one of Montana’s strongest players with some of the best natural size on team. Even before switching to offensive line permanently, he weighted 285 pounds. But he knew he would need more to play Montana’s right tackle position bookending All-Big Sky left tackle David Reese.

He went to work in the weight room and the dining hall, adding enough mass to tip the scale at 302 pounds at the beginning of fall camp. During the three-week session, Ralston fended off talented redshirt freshman Thayne Jackson to earn the starting right tackle spot. Last Saturday, Ralston made the first start of his career in UM’s 45-23 victory over Valparaiso.

Ralson Lamarriel Taylor up top“He’s a freak athlete,” Reese said in August. “He’s played five positions and he knows football well, he’s a quick learner so he’s doing well so far. The dude is 305, one of the stronger guys on the team. He’s built right now to be a right tackle.”

Ralston said gaining the extra weight “wasn’t that hard at first”. Maintaining the weight has been hard, however. Every time he hits a wall during a meal, he says he has to “fight through it” and keep eating.

“Eating a ton every meal still is sometimes hard,” Ralston said in August. “Once you get full, you have to keep eating. Instead of three meals a day, it’s four, five meals a day with lots of snacks in between. It was tough but kind of at first enjoyable because you can let loose and get the weight on. As it has22 gone on, it’s become a task to eat that much all the time.”

That athleticism will be tested Saturday against the No. 7 Washington Huskies, who boast one of the stoutest defensive lines in all of college football.

“He has the size, the athletic ability, great feet,” Stitt said earlier this week. “He is very, very strong. I truly believe as he gets more comfortable and more reps, he’ll continue to improve.”

The physical abilities of Ralston have never been in doubt. He moves well. He does not appear to have excess body fat despite his added mass. His footwork, his hip movement, his quickness, his strength; all are among the best for current Griz linemen.

The selflessness he’s displayed has not gone unnoticed by his teammates either, particularly fellow fifth-year seniors who have had a front row seat to see his transformation.

Griz-Valparaiso - Mike Ralston getting off the ball“It’s crazy because he’s one of like we like to call it, the originals who came in as redshirts five years ago who are now fifth-year seniors,” UM fifth-year senior cornerback Ryan McKinley said. “It’s been pretty cool to watch him evolve. It seems like yesterday that was at receiver and tight end and now he’s an offensive lineman. To see the progress he’s made on the field and off the field as well, it’s been pretty inspiring.

“He’s one of our own, one of our brothers, our teammates so to see him succeed like that, it’s not every day you see a guy go through that sort of transition. To go through that many positions and to now finally be at something that he just loves and be in his final ride, I couldn’t be more happy for him.”

Although on the field has brought nothing but change for Ralston, he’s been one of Montana’s steadiest performers in the classroom. He graduated with a management information systems degree from the UM business school last spring with a 3.47 grade-point average. He is closing in on his master’s degree in business analytics.

Ralston has accepted a job with KPMG in Seattle and will move there next summer. His dream job is to someday work for Nike. Until then though, Ralston wants to relish the remainder of what has been a trying but rewarding football career.

Ralston hand punch“The friendships I’ve made, not only with the guys I had existing friendships with before because football is one of the few things you can do where you have a truly diverse group of individuals from truly different backgrounds truly working together,” Ralston said. “I think that’s been a really rewarding experience.”

Photos by Brooks and Colter Nuanez. 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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