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: Slot receiver
The players: Jayshawn Gates (5-foot-8, 155-pound sophomore) and Johnny D’Agostino (6-foot-1, 185-pound redshirt freshman).
What’s at stake: The only starting position secured among Montana State’s receiving corps belongs to senior captain Mitch Griebel at MSU’s “F/Y” position. And MSU receivers coach Cody Kempt won’t even go as far to say that Griebel is an entrenched starter despite the fact that he led the team in catches last fall. In other words, the battle for the eight or nine spots in the wide receiver rotation is wide open and the battle for whoever spells Griebel in the slot should be one of the fiercest on the team. Gates had a breakout year as a big-play guy as a freshman while D’Agostino has been a pleasant surprise after joining the Bobcats as a walk-on out of Bozeman High last fall.
How they fared in 2014: Gates, widely affirmed as one of the three fastest players on the team, had a breakout season in limited duty out of the slot a season ago. One of college football’s slightest players, he showed no fear in averaging 29.4 yards per catch. He caught just 13 passes but three were for touchdowns. He had three catches of more than 45 yards and his 382 yards were second on the squad to Griebel’s 445 on 32 less catches.
D’Agostino, a Class AA first-team All-State selection for Bozeman High’s 2013 state title team, walked on to Montana State and hasn’t missed a beat. He earned Scout Team Most Valuable Offensive Player honors in the fall and was a standout that earned first and second-team reps during spring.
How they fared during spring practice: Gates saw his fair share of chances during spring drills as the majority of MSU’s veteran offensive talent — running backs Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke and Griebel for example — saw limited live action. Gates showed his usual shiftiness along with a consistent ability to stretch the field.
But D’Agostino was a revelation, catching everything thrown his way. He led the offense in receptions during two different scrimmages and he received high praise from MSU third-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey along with Kempt.
“Johnny D’Agostino is consistent. He’s a Mitch Griebel clone,” Kempt said following the Triangle Classic. “He catches everything; he’s always in the right spot. We’ve thrown a lot on his plate. He is playing F and X. Today, he was at both. He had a great day. He’s always consistent and he does great things.”
The case for Gates: You can’t catch him. Plain and simple. Gates might be the lightest player in Division I football but he’s been able to avoid injury his first couple of seasons due to his premier elusiveness and his elite speed. It’s between Gates and Justin Paige as to who’s the fastest straight-line player at MSU, which is saying something considering Paige ran on a 4×400-meter relay team his senior year in track that was nationally ranked. Gates can beat you over the top, like he did on a 48-yard touchdown in MSU’s 77-37 win over UC Davis or he can beat you on a bubble screen, like he did on a 67-yard gain that set up a touchdown in the Bobcats’ 29-18 victory over North Dakota. His one knock is his ability to be an extension of the run game, something Griebel excels at.
The case for D’Agostino: D’Agostino has among the best hands on the Bobcats. In today’s college football, slot receivers can be used in such a diverse fashion, having someone who can snare a pass anytime it’s thrown to them is a huge advantage. The knock on D’Agostino is his lack of game experience. Will he be able to catch everything thrown his way when he’s not going against a depleted secondary made up of Bobcat reserves? Will he be able to handle the pressure of big-game situations with thousands of people watching? It remains to be seen but his coaches and teammates certainly do not lack confidence in his abilities.
What they must accomplish during fall camp: This battle may be a moot point if either player, specifically D’Agostino, learns another spot and breaks into the rotation in another fashion. Griebel is a true slot but Gates might be able to produce on the outside at “Z” receiver because of his deep threat ability. D’Agostino has the ability to play “X” because of his height and, according to Kempt, his football IQ. The battle here is for a backup spot but the true battle is between Gates, D’Agostino and nine other players for a spot in MSU’s receiver rotation, regardless of what spot they earn playing time at.
Also on the roster: Casey Schwertfeger (6-foot, 190-pounds) — the redshirt freshman is not coming to fall camp but will join the team when school starts as part of the 104-man roster.