BOZEMAN — Bryson McCabe is as hard a hitter as the Big Sky Conference has to offer. As an 18-year-old kid in Brookings, he found himself doing nothing but trying to hit a home run.
Three years into his career at Montana State and five years into his college career, McCabe has finally learned to listen to one of Jeff Choate’s primary tenants: trust the process.
The native of Okoboji, Iowa originally committed to South Dakota State in Brookings because it was his only offer and it’s 150 miles to his tiny hometown. He lasted just a semester at SDSU before transferring to Iowa Western. After a year at the junior college, McCabe transferred to Montana State. He made an immediate impact but suffered a slight tear to his meniscus, an injury that cost him six games in 2015. MSU’s well-chronicled defensive demise played out mostly with McCabe watching from the sideline.
Saturday, he will play in the final home opener of his college football career. The two-year captain will take the field at Bobcat Stadium and likely meet a bunch of familiar old friends at the center of the field for the coin toss as MSU squares off against South Dakota State in a non-conference clash.
At SDSU, McCabe lived in the dorms with Jackrabbits’ starting strong safety Nick Farina. They lived across the hall from All-American Jake Wieneke, a stud sure to be on McCabe’s radar heavily Saturday night. Wieneke, like McCabe, is a team captain entering the FCS showdown Saturday night.
“This is a big game,” McCabe said to a group of reporters at Brick Breedin Fieldhouse on the MSU campus on Wednesday. “Any game against the fourth-ranked team in the country, coming to your place, that’s special.”
McCabe admits he would likely be standing on the visitor’s sideline had he made it past his first semester at SDSU. After earning Iowa 2A first-team all-state honors for Spirit Lake High’s state championship team, McCabe acknowledges now he had an elevated opinion of himself back then.
South Dakota State stood as McCabe’s only scholarship offer. His father, Bryan, now an owner-operator of a semi truck, was out of work at the time. His mother, Beth, is a second grade teacher. Bryson contemplated walking on but knew it would not be financially feasible. So he took SDSU’s offer.
The powerful safety arrived in Brookings with full intention of playing right away. When he redshirted, it started the wheels in his head spinning. Bryan, formerly in medical device sales, started driving his truck and told Bryson he would help him explore his options. Bryson chose junior college to give a run at earning other Division I interest.
“First off, South Dakota State gave me an opportunity to play college football,” McCabe said. “Coach Stig (John Stieglemeier) took a chance on a small-town kid. I wasn’t the smartest 18-year-old. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
McCabe initially went to Iowa Western with the intent of “going as big as I could.” Following one standout season, he went on official visits to perennial FCS power North Dakota State and now reigning Big Sky Conference champion North Dakota. He held offers from South Dakota, Central Connecticut and Jacksonville State as well.
As he stood in his hotel room soon after arriving in Bozeman, he looked out onto the Bridger Mountains.
“I was literally on my visit for an hour and I looked out my hotel window and I was like, ‘I need to come here,” McCabe said. “There was no way I was leaving.”
The 6-foot, 205-pounder joined a beleaguered Bobcat secondary in desperate need of safeties after the graduation of Rob Marshall and the late Eryon Barnett. McCabe earned a starting spot in fall camp, then had a solid debut, notching five solo tackles in MSU’s 45-14 win over Division II Fort Lewis. But he suffered the meniscus injury.
McCabe missed games against Eastern Washington, Cal Poly, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and Portland State. MSU went just 2-3, falling from No. 7 to No. 21 in the national rankings despite a powerful offense that scored at least 35 points in each of the five outings and more than 40 four times. McCabe played in the final five games, making 22 more tackles and breaking up five passes. But the defensive struggles overall continued. The Bobcats finished 5-6, their first losing season since 2001. Two days after MSU’s 54-35 loss to rival Montana in Bozeman, Rob Ash and most of the coaching staff that recruited McCabe were fired.
“The injury was frustrating,” McCabe said. “Then the whole coaching change, that was tough because it just takes awhile to get comfortable with your coach.”
Under Choate, MSU’s tough-minded second-year head coach, the Bobcats improved significantly defensively a year ago. McCabe was a crucial part of the progression.
He earned praise from coaches around the league and the country. Former Bryant head coach Marty Fine, who resigned after last season, along with North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert, Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers and former UC Davis head coach Ron Gould all singled out McCabe in post-game interviews without being specifically asked about him.
“He’s a master of his technique, understanding leverage, our coverage concepts, what were are doing and where he is at on the field,” MSU first-year safeties coach Kyle Risinger said. “He creates great, sharp angles all the time to eliminate space.”
“He’s a guy who if you ask him to do something, he will find a way to do it and you don’t have to ask him twice. What he lacks in size or speed, he makes up for it being a master technician.”
That strong reputation amongst Big Sky foes earned affirmation with his selection to the All-Big Sky second team. As a junior, McCabe piled up 75 tackles, two tackles for loss, an interception, three forced fumbles and nine pass breakups for the league’s No. 2 scoring defense.
“I think it is work ethic that makes him special,” Choate said on Wednesday. “He has tremendous passion for the game of football and he works incredibly hard whether it’s in practice, in the weight room, in film study, taking care of his body. He does all the little things to be great.
“He’s a great tackler and I think he has better coverage skills than people give him credit for. He’s a very confident young man and that confidence comes from his preparation.”
In Choate’s second season, the Bobcats are employing an undersized but fast unit who hopes to carve out a reputation as sure tacklers. McCabe and fellow captain Mac Bignell are the two Bobcats who have established status as feared hitters in the Big Sky.
“McCabe will come down and smack you,” MSU senior cornerback Bryce Alley said. “He’s also one of the most knowledgeable guys on our side of the ball. A lot of the DBs in the room look up to him as far as being a leader. He’s done that since he’s been here on a consistent basis. He’s always going to perform no matter what.”
The recruiting profile McCabe made himself as a senior in high school claims he could run 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash and squat 525 pounds. If he can even come close to those numbers next spring at his pro day in front of NFL scouts, he will turn heads.
Several sources within the program, including McCabe himself, confirm that he has registered vertical leaps of 38 and 39 inches last summer, elite marks no matter size or position.
“Really, the sky is the limit, I think,” Risinger said when asked about McCabe’s ceiling. “He’s a guy who has worked for every ounce of football talent that he has. Everything he gets done, he’s our hardest worker. He’s our hardest worker in the weight room, off the field drills, getting guys in the group text to bring them along. He’s a guy who’s always doing something. He’s really worked himself into being a really good football player. Judging by some of our weight room stuff, his numbers are not what you’d expect from a kid like him, very explosive.”
McCabe is closing in on a degree in health enhancement. He hopes to someday be a physical education teacher with an eye on combating childhood obesity. He also wants to coach, preferably at the high school level, although he is not opposed to trying out the college level. First, McCabe will keep dreaming big.
“I definitely want to play football as long as I can,” McCabe said. “I hope to be healthy, knock on wood. I want to have a good senior season and see what happens. It’s fun seeing the small school guys balling out. Even getting an opportunity would be big for me. Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to play in the NFL.”
The last time South Dakota State came to Bobcat Stadium, McCabe was at Iowa Western. That snowy, freezing day, the Jackrabbits posted a 47-41 victory in the first round of the 2014 FCS playoffs. Three years later, SDSU returns with a No. 4 national ranking and national championship aspirations. McCabe could be a part of the reigning Missouri Valley Conference champions. Yet he has no regrets. He’s happy to be playing out his collegiate career as a Bobcat.
“It’s definitely taught me to enjoy the process,” McCabe said. “At the beginning of my college career, I was looking for the home run right away. I was 18 years old, didn’t know what I wanted, wanted to be the man, wanted to play.
“What Coach Choate always talks about, enjoy the process and everything will work out. You see three years later, I’m a captain for my senior year, I’m enjoying it, loving every minute of Bozeman. I love the players. I would’ve never met them or learned this if it weren’t for the process I went through.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.