BOZEMAN — Zach Wright is one of six men left standing from a 2014 recruiting class at Montana State filled with headliners and attention grabbers.
Wright came from New Braunfels, Texas, an undersized defensive lineman from an area absent in MSU’s otherwise rich Lone Star pipeline under former coach Rob Ash.
In a signing class that included former 4-star defensive end Garrett Marino, FBS transfers Bryson Keeton and Anthony Knight, highly touted out of state prospects like safety Demonte King, linebacker Eric Prevost and Mitch Herbert along with the gem of the Treasure State in linebacker Grant Collins, it’s Wright that has risen to become one of the faces of Jeff Choate’s Bobcats.
Alex Neale originally committed to Montana, eventually went to Sin City, felt burned out by the bright lights of Las Vegas quickly and transferred to Montana State. The former UNLV transfer gave Montana State instant stability on the interior offensive front and a lineman whose caring nature embraces the entire team as he prepares for his third and final year as the Bobcat starting center.
MSU wide receivers coach Matt Miller convinced Choate to use a late minimal scholarship on Kevin Kassis, a late addition to the roster before Choate’s first season. The shifty, smooth junior turned heads with his sharp route running skills just days into his first fall camp. He set the tone from a daily work ethic standpoint back then and, with Herbert now in medical school, even more these days.
On Wednesday, Montana State’s third-year head coach announced that Wright, Neale and Kassis will serve as the team captains for the 2018 season.
“This is one of the greatest honors you can ever imagine, knowing the guys believe in you that much and respect everything you’ve done,” Wright said.
“I think it’s an honor,” Neale said. “It’s a huge tradition. Being one of those newer guys to have the chance, especially not even being here the full four years at MSU, it’s a huge honor.”
“It’s a cool deal and an honor to be picked by my teammates as a junior to help represent this team,” Kassis said. “…It was pretty obvious when Mitch left that there was a role I needed to fill. I wanted to be more vocal in that group and it started with the receiver group then it started to branch off to the other guys at other positions.”
Wright is among six fifth-year seniors on MSU’s roster, part of the second-to-last recruiting class for Ash. Collins, tight end Curtis Amos, defensive end Tyrone Fa’anono, tight end Connor Sullivan, and preseason All-Big Sky nose tackle Tucker Yates are the other members of that class that survived the coaching change to reach their fifth and final seasons. Wide receiver John D’Agostino and tight end Wilson Brott joined MSU as preferred walk-ons five years ago.
Herbert, wide receiver Justin Paige and cornerbacks Bryce Alley and Braelen Evans all exhausted their eligibility at MSU.
That group combined with a largely young roster that totals 12 seniors and 19 juniors elected the trio through a team vote, the first time entering his third season Choate has let the team pick the captains instead of the head coach.
“This is the first group in three years, they were elected by their teammates, really the first time we’ve done that since I’ve been here because I feel like our culture is established enough for these guys to make wise decisions about who’s representing them and leading this team,” Choate said.
Wright outlasted and outworked all his internal competition at MSU to earn a starting spot at defensive tackle despite coming to Bozeman at 234 pounds. At 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, he’s still one of the smaller defensive tackles in the Big Sky but that has not hindered his production. He shared team defensive MVP last season for his physical play dominating the point of attack at the line of scrimmage to keep linebackers like All-Big Sky selection Mac Bignell free from blockers.
Wright shared MSU’s defensive MVP honors last season after making 35 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss.
“Zach Wright is one of the hardest workers I think that we have on the team,” Choate said. “He is one of the guys that’s willing to get out of his comfort zone and challenge guys when things aren’t done well, and that’s a hard thing for kids to do with their peers, become that vocal leader and he’s definitely one of those guys for us.”
When Choate took the job in December of 2015, Neale was the second player he recruited, adding the former 3-star recruit and former 4-star quarterback Tyler Bruggman to the roster a month after his hire. Neale has started every game in Choate’s first two seasons, earning MSU’s Rob Higgs Toughness Award last fall.
“Alex originally transferred from UNLV, and I think that says a lot for how he’s assimilated into our program,” Choate said. “He’s definitely a lead-by-example guy, definitely a glue guy on our offensive line. He’s a guy that if you need something you call him. Teammates will lean on him, he’ll put his arm around those guys in the locker room, take care of the youngsters, and he’s just an outstanding example of the kind of student-athlete we want in our program.”
Neale’s election to captain marks the fourth straight season – and the fifth in the last seven – that former FBS transfer has served as a team captain at MSU.
Kassis became the fourth player in the last four years, and the 12th in the last 25, elected as a Bobcat team captain as an underclassman. The recent junior captains include Bryson McCabe and Khari Garcia in 2016, Chad Newell and Dakota Prukop in 2015, and current Bobcat assistant coach DeNarius McGhee in 2011. Others include Dane Fletcher and Jeff Hansen in 2008, Travis Lulay in 2004, Jon Montoya in 2002, Ryan Johnson in 2001, and Joe Baker in 1999.
Kassis enters his junior year with 21 catches for 280 yards and the unquestioned leadership position in a largely unproven but talented Bobcat wide receiver corps.
“Kevin Kassis, bottom line, period, is the hardest worker that we have in our program,” Choate said. “He came here originally on a low-partial scholarship from northern California, Sacramento area, played as a true freshman and has established himself as a leader in the wide receiver room.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.