BOZEMAN — The rookie looked like anything but a newcomer as his eyes darted from running back to quarterback as Weber State ran a read option play designed to specifically exploit his inexperience.
The true freshman defensive end did not bite on the fake handoff, instead setting the edge before blasting WSU quarterback Billy Green, driving him into the Bobcat Stadium turf with authority.
Later in the game, Weber State inserted the more mobile Jadrian Clark at quarterback. Montana State’s true freshman defensive end continued helping Bobcat coaches and fans alike forget any memory of the headlining pass rusher he signed with. With a polished inside rip move, the upstart edge rusher beat WSU All-American tackle Cameron Young for the first sack of his young career.
Tyrone Fa’anono came to Montana State as a 3-star defensive tackle from Oxnard, California. Former MSU defensive line coach Bo Beck had every intention of playing the 6-foot-3, then-260-pounder as a 3-technique on the interior of MSU’s perennially potent defensive line.
That same class, the Bobcats surprised the rest of the Big Sky on National Signing Day when they added former 4-star recruit Garrett Marino, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound bull in a china shop with unparalleled power and an unpredictably short fuse.
By the fifth week of the 2015 season, Fa’anono had mastered MSU’s scheme well enough to crack the rotation while Marino had already been kicked off the team. By the eighth game of the season, Fa’anono found his groove, showing polish and power in wreaking havoc in Weber State’s backfield.
“Tyrone from Day 1 when we first came into fall camp when we were freshmen, he was throwing pass rush moves on some of the oldest guys and getting by them,” MSU fifth-year senior captain defensive tackle Zach Wright said. “He’s always had that gift for quick hands and quick feet and being intelligent with his play. I’ve been impressed with him ever since I’ve known him. He had a few rough years in the middle and that’s been a disappointment because I know that guy can produce.”
Since that head-turning breakout performance against Weber, Fa’anono has been in a fight to fulfill his formidable potential with a collection of factors mostly outside of his control. The disciplined underclassmen first had to deal with a muddled defensive scheme that caused the Bobcats to give up points and yards in droves, eventually leading to a coaching change.
Since Jeff Choate took over as MSU’s head coach before the 2016 season, Fa’anono has been in a vicious battle with a foot injury. The ailment cost him the 2016 season in totality and for all of spring practices ahead of the 2017 season. Last year, a rash of injuries around him created the necessity for him to play out of position at Buck end all while still not feeling full strength.
Four games into his senior season, Fa’anono is finally back to his truest form. The 6-foot-3, 275-pounder finally feels like himself again.
“It took a long time to get back, but having a positive mindset got me through everything,” Fa’anono said. “Being mentally strong, what I learned was once you are mentally strong, everything follows through.
“It was tough. My foot really bothered me for a long time. “This past year, I was finally able to do the whole spring work out, the summer camp, everything. In the past, I wasn’t ever able to do all that stuff. I feel good right now, the best shape I’ve been in before.”
In Montana State’s opener against Western Illinois, Fa’anono notched a sack. His relentless play from “4I” strong end position wore WIU’s offensive tackles down. In the fourth quarter, the Leathernecks started double teaming Fa’anono, leaving Bryce Sterk in one-on-ones on the other side of the line. Sterk responded with two sacks in the final eight minutes to seal a 26-23 victory.
“He’s definitely a force to be reckoned with on the line,” Sterk said. “He has so many skills and he’s been doing this for a long time so he’s a person to look out for.”
Fa’anono had another sack in MSU’s 47-24 win over Wagner. His ability to wear down offensive tackles and draw extra attention has helped Sterk enter Saturday’s showdown against No. 5 Eastern Washington as the league leader in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (8.5).
“I don’t think Tyrone should be blocked by anybody in this league, I really don’t,” Choate said. “He’s a fifth-year senior. He has great hands and hips. When he plays to his level, that’s what it should look like. That’s where we’ve challenged him. Getting a guy to play at that level, especially if you are going to play a team like Eastern Washington who is just going to throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball, you’ve got to be able to play at that high level.”
Playing at a high level has never been a question for Fa’anono. Finding health has been an entirely more challenging quest.
“He was so ahead of the game as a true freshman,” Beck said in August of 2015 during his final camp as MSU’s defensive line coach. “He made it where we could not keep him off the field.”
As a true freshman, Fa’anono totaled 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He showed a mature strength and an ability to set the edge against the run.
The plan for Fa’anono initially was to redshirt him so he could spend a fall adding mass in hopes of playing on the interior of MSU’s defensive line. Once he showed he could play both defensive end spots, he earned himself time in the rotation.
That following off-season, Ash promoted Kane Ioane to become MSU’s defensive coordinator. The results became shared duties with former coordinator Jamie Marshall as the Bobcats operated a new scheme in what ended up being the final season for that staff at Montana State.
In the spring of 2015, Ioane said Fa’anono had acclimated to the scheme better than any Bobcat.
“He’s an athletic guy who’s very conscientious,” Ash said in August of 2015. “He studies. He knows what he is supposed to do. He rarely lines up in the wrong spot. And he has a good motor. He goes after it and plays hard all the time. I like him a lot.”
That 2014 Bobcat team made the playoffs despite playing a collection of young players on both sides of the ball. The following year, MSU had sky-high expectations with the return of All-American quarterback Dakota Prukop, an offensive line anchored by All-American tackle John Weidenaar and future NFL guard J.P. Flynn, and an array of offensive weapons headlined by future NFL Draft pick tight end Beau Sandland.
But a defense afflicted by youth, misalignment and miscommunication could not stop anybody. Despite leading the country in scoring offense at nearly 42 points per game, the 2015 Bobcats limped to a 5-6 finish stamped by a 54-35 loss to rival Montana in Bozeman. Less than 48 hours after that loss, former head coach Rob Ash and most of his staff were fired.
Fa’anono was solid as a sophomore, starting eight games and notching three sacks among his 24 tackles. Beginning in 2016, Fa’anono simply could not get healthy.
“Any time you get injured — the thing about being injured in a football program, everybody is trying to win week to week so if you get out of the mix, it’s really hard to get back into it because your routine gets out of whack,” Hout said. “You can’t go out there and practice. You are not around the guys. You are not joking around all the time because you are just away from things.
“With Tyrone, he’s had multiple injuries. But he’s been great about staying in it, not giving up, not taking any days off as far as rehabbing and getting his body right. A lot of guys probably come back from those injuries and either cash it in, hang up the pads or they get out of shape and they don’t come back and have a strong finish to their career.
“Tyrone is one of those guys who we are going to use as an example around here that as long as we are here, as a guy who has toughed it out and came back and had a great finish to his career.”
Adjusting to the new scheme in 2015 and the new staff the following season was just part of the acclimation process for Fa’anono when he first arrived in Bozeman. From Ash to Beck to Choate to Hout, coaches have consistently raved about how coachable he is. Fa’anono has shown an unwavering level of respect for his elders, something that comes from his upbringing as one of five children for Sam and Joyce Fa’anono.
Growing up, Fa’anono seemed to always be surrounded by friends and family. His Samoan heritage defined almost every aspect of his life. Oxnard is a city of more than 200,000 with almost 40 percent of its residents claiming Polynesian heritage. Fa’anono’s father is a priest at one of the largest local churches in the city.
Having to go watch game film on Sundays after games instead of being surrounded by familiar faces was a transition fro Fa’anono.
“Every time we always had church and even if I didn’t want to go, I still had to go because my parents made me,” he said three years ago as a 19-year-old. “Now it’s all on me. I am still adjusting to life up here.
“I’m still homesick. I still want to go back home. But I have to do what I have to do to make my parents and my family proud.”
Five years later, those feelings have dissipated.
“Oh, I’ve grown up so much,” Fa’anono said in August. “This place has molded me. I’ve always played for my family back home to make my parents proud.
“Everything I’ve gone through, it’s taught me how to be able to adapt to everything and everything is going to be ok if you just keep your head up.”
During his freshman and sophomore seasons, the hulking defensive end showed fierce emotion when he would make a play in the backfield but otherwise, his quiet nature characterized his persona on the team. Entering his fifth and final season however, Fa’anono served as what MSU defensive line coach Byron Hout calls Montana State’s “energy police”, a hyped and gregarious character that sparked the Bobcat defense and the team slogged through the dog days of fall camp.
The ritual is consistent for the fifth-year senior. Fa’anono remains completely silent during MSU’s “flex” stretching period before practices. As soon as he’s loose, Fa’anono transforms into a wild man, igniting his teammates with his energy.
“Tyrone is the energy guy,” Wright said. “When he goes out there and makes a play, he gets everyone going, he gets me going and the entire defense is riled up. The offense in turn works harder because now we are all pushing that much harder. Tyrone can single-handedly change the way a practice is going with the energy he has and the way he is. He brings the rest of the team with him.”
Although Fa’anono regained his health for the second half of last season, a season-ending injury suffered by Grant Collins forced Fa’anono to play Buck end in most of his nine starts. He ended the season with 40 tackles, six tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.
“People don’t know how good Tyrone is because he’s been either hurt or playing out of his position,” MSU All-Big Sky senior defensive tackle Tucker Yates said. “He played Buck at 275 pounds. And he’s running with wheel routes down the sideline. He’s a freak athlete, so smart and now he’s actually in his position.
“You can see the work he put in this summer and how bad he wants to play and how good he wants to be.”
Montana State’s core defensive line have been on an interesting journey, committing to play for a perennial playoff team that advanced to the postseason their first campaigns in Bozeman. Fa’anono broke into the lineup first in 2014, Yates has been a starter since he was a redshirt freshman in 2015 and Wright joined the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2016.
On Saturday, the Bobcats face a test of consequence like no other so far in the Choate era. Sure, MSU played five ranked teams last season but a win would’ve been considered a massive upset rather than a benchmark. Choate talked all week about the opportunity MSU has this week to prove the Bobcats belong back in the playoff conversation leading up to hosting the No. 5 team in the nation.
“National championship, that’s it,” Fa’anono said of his goals for his final year in Bozeman. “That’s the No. 1 goal. That’s why I came here. We want to beat the Griz. We want to win the Big Sky. But right now we want to win today and win every day in hopes of winning the whole thing. Winning is the goal this year. The past two years has been about defining our culture, getting everybody on the same page. But now that everyone is on one track, our mindset is just to win.”
Through a rigorous off-season, summer conditioning, fall camp and now four games into his final campaign, Fa’anono has “been playing like a man possessed,” MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said earlier this month. That fanatical approach, increased leadership and relentless energy will be a key factor for the Bobcats in Saturday’s matchup and throughout the rest of the season.
“He’s been all in,” Choate said. “He knows this is his last ride. I’ve seen a higher level of commitment from him all the way around. He’s a quiet guy by nature. But on the field, he’s very much our emotional leader. It’s been awesome to watch him grow.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. All gallery photos below by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.