BOZEMAN — The process of building strong offensive and defensive lines may not make headlines, but the play of those units on the football field does. That explains Rob Ash’s enthusiasm for the 23 student-athletes that joined the Montana State football program on Wednesday.
“That’s probably the headline to this class,” Ash said, “trying to improve our size with bigger guys in the lines, taller guys at the skill positions, without sacrificing athletic ability. In addition to that we got some highly-skilled athletes. We are adding a very exciting group of football players to our program, athletes that can compete physically at the national level.”
More than one-third of the new group of Bobcats call the line-of-scrimmage home, with three lining up on offense and five on defense. Ash said that developing those players takes two separate approaches.
“We have a lot of guys coming back in the offensive line,” Ash said. “We lose Quinn (Catalano after) this year and a large number the next year. We didn’t feel like we had to go crazy, but it takes a while to build an offensive lineman so we wanted to get good players into the system and begin the process.”
The impact of those signed across the line could be more immediate, Ash said.
“We have an amazing tradition on the defensive line, two guys in the NFL and two others that won the most recent Buck Buchanan Awards,” he said. “If the four guys up front can pressure the quarterback and stay gap-sound against the run the entire defense functions well. We think we added four guys that will be able to do that.”
Ash preaches that Montana State’s recruiting begins close to home, and the Bobcats landed one of the state’s top players in Bozeman High ilnebacker Grant Collins and a decorated lineman in Manhattan’s Austin Oldenburger. Those two headline a five-player class of Montanans - they are joined by Colstrip’s Tucker Yates, Trevin Thompson of Helena, and receiver Connor Sullivan of Ennis - that Ash calls, “exceptional.”
“I’m very happy with our Montana signees,” Ash said. “The state may not have as many Division I players this year, but the quality is exceptionally good, and I feel we got some of the very best players in Montana, no question.”
Glacier running back Noah James signed as a preferred walk on. In nine games this season, the 6-foot-1, 200 pound James rushed for 1,062 yards and 17 touchdowns, helping the Wolfpack to the No. 2 seed in the playoffs before breaking his ankle in the opening game of the postseason. It was James’ first year as a feature back, splitting carries in the backfield his sophomore and junior seasons. He plans to study psychology in Bozeman.
“Noah’s a kid that could’ve gotten the bulk of the carries for three straight years,” Glacier coach Grady Bennett said. “He was that talented.
“There’s some kids you’re unsure about (walking on), Noah’s one of those guys I know can make it. With his work ethic, with his intelligence.
“As a running back you have to do so many different things. It’s not just carrying the football, you’ve got to be a receiver out of the backfield, you’ve got to be a great pass protector, you’ve got to understand the scheme of all those things. Noah does that. He’s got the complete package. I just know that with his work ethic and determination, I know he’s gonna make it.”
Ash, now in his eighth year at MSU, was also pleased to replenish his team’s talent pipeline from Texas, which provided eight of this year’s new Bobcats. “I’m really happy to sign so many good players from Texas,” he said. “Our production out of that state has been down in the last couple of recruiting classes, so signing eight players from there is very satisfying. I’m glad we got back into Texas in a big way this year.”