As Montana State begins fall camp next, Skyline Sports will break down the Bobcats’ roster by highlighting prominent battles for playing time in each position group.
Today’s position: Nose tackle
The players: Nate Bignell (6-foot-2, 290-pound senior), Conner Thomas (6-foot-3, 285-pound senior), Joe Naotala (6-foot-2, 275-pound junior college transfer), Tucker Yates (6-foot, 310-pound redshirt freshman) and Matt Brownlow (5-foot-9, 305-pound redshirt sophomore).
What’s at stake: Since the departure of Zach Minter, Montana State has struggled on the interior defensive line. Taylor Sheridan was an All-Big Sky Conference selection last season while battling injuries but Taylor Dees struggled while playing on a torn ligament in his knee. Heading into fall camp, Montana State needs a collection of unproven players to rise to the occasion to anchor the spot next to Sheridan. In new defensive coordinator Kane Ioane’s revamped scheme, the defensive front will be a collection of units specified by three different color sets. The units will play in specific situations that suit their strengths. In other words, first and second strings don’t matter; it’s a battle to earn a spot on a team or multiple teams. MSU ninth-year defensive line coach Bo Beck said Sheridan is the one constant. Ioane and Beck spent a week at Southern Cal learning the Trojans’ defense. Beck said Sheridan is the Bobcats’ Leonard Williams, the USC defensive tackle who was picked No. 3 overall in the NFL Draft.
How they fared in 2014: Bignell was productive off the bench last season as one of two backup defensive tackles with Thomas. The Drummond product had eight solo tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks among his 12 total stops.
Thomas, a Kalispell Flathead product, played in spurts himself but was still productive. He notched eight solo tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack in spot duty. For comparison, Dees had 17 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss as a full-time starter who missed two games.
As a sophomore at JC powerhouse Palomar in San Marcos north of San Diego, Naotala had 42 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He also blocked two kicks.
Yates spent 2014 as a redshirt and as a demon in the weight room. The three-time state champion wrestler is touted as one of the strongest Bobcats already.
Brownlow is also among the team’s anointed strong men, something aided by his low center of gravity and short limbs. He’s yet to play a down in a live game but he’s carved out a niche on the team because of his sense of humor and noticeable toughness.
How they fared during spring practice: Bignell showed flashes of becoming the player many thought he would become after his standout Class C career for one of the state’s top programs. He took most of the first-team repetitions during spring after Thomas went down with an injury.
Thomas was rotating in with the first team before spraining his toe and missing the rest of spring ball.
Naotala was finishing up his two-year degree at Palomar.
Yates worked his way into the second nose tackle spot partially because of Thomas’ injury and partially because of his performance. He’s still learning to play within a defense but his push off the line is tremendous and he’s a plug in the interior that’s hard to move.
Brownlow also worked his way up to getting second-team reps. He had a highlight of the spring when he batted down a lateral by Jake Bleskin, recovered the ball and scooted in for what’s surely the first touchdown of his football career.
The case for Bignell: The son of MSU Hall of Fame tight end Joe Bignell has high-level pass rushing skills for a defensive tackle. He has good size, good strength and he’s proven he can produce. He could very well win several rotation spots on MSU’s various teams but he’ll have to perform well in camp in order to do so.
The case for Thomas: Thomas has the best size of anyone in the competition. He’s very athletic for his mass and he’s shown flashes as a reserve the last two seasons. He seems to lack the consistent mean streak that is required for a nose tackle. Perhaps that will come in his final campaign.
The case for Naotala: On film, he looks like a prototypical nose tackle who can engage double teams, shed blocks and make plays against the interior run game. MSU targeted him because of a need so now Naotala must prove he can fill that need.
The case for Yates: Yates plays with a high motor and certainly has the strength to compete in the Big Sky. He needs to hone his savvy and get some snaps under his belt. But he could find himself in a position to contribute in MSU’s short-yardage packages if he can perform during fall camp. All-America quarterback Dakota Prukop told me the Colstrip product can squat more than anyone on the team, save maybe Brownlow.
The case for Brownlow: Which brings us to the underdog of the group. Brownlow was a start of school walk-on who didn’t appear to have a chance. But he’s carved out a niche as a popular member of the team because of his sense of humor. During spring drills, he proved he can at least absorb a double team. His unique low center of gravity combined with formidable lower body strength make him an interesting prospect that might sneak into the rotation as a short-yardage player.
What they must accomplish during fall camp: The new defensive philosophy implemented by Ioane should benefit the entire unit, but particularly the defensive line. No less than 12 players will be in consideration for a spot in the various defensive line groups and the nose spot has the most candidates. The older players — Bignell, Thomas — need to assert themselves and the front-runners and become leaders in the room during fall camp. Naotala needs to acclimate personally and schematically as soon as possible. Yates and Brownlow need to prove they can be trusted when the bullets are live.
Also on the roster: None.