BOZEMAN — The start of fall camp prompts a mental indexing of who’s who on the football field, and the veterans are always the first players you recognize. It's no different at Montana State.
“Yep, there’s Chris Murray. Bryson McCabe looks solid. Mac Bignell is going about his business the same way.”
But then you see Tucker Yates and you do a double-take.
Yates, a junior nose guard from Colstrip, reported to camp almost 30 pounds lighter than his peak playing weight from last season. He looked slimmer and lighter on his feet.
One of the most physically imposing players on the team now appears (relatively, of course) like “one of the guys” on the defensive line.
It wasn’t by accident. After last season, a year in which he suffered a right shoulder injury that forced him to miss five starts and undergo surgery, Yates sought to become more mobile and, most important, remain healthy.
Yates took several measures to slim down: He altered his diet — no more processed foods; no more giant portions — and spent part of the summer working at a Bozeman lumber yard. He ran and lifted and sweated with his teammates under the direction of MSU strength and conditioning coach Alex Willcox.
The result? Yates now weighs 290 pounds. His max last season was nearly 320.
“It shows the work that coach Willcox put into the summer,” Yates said after practice Saturday afternoon inside Bobcat Stadium. “He was running us and putting us through those workouts.
“I think, just mainly, trying to stay healthy was the big part of it. I was a little worried about maybe getting a little too light being in there at the nose guard, but it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Bobcats coach Jeff Choate agrees.
Choate said Yates still has the strength and girth to be a preeminent interior lineman in the Big Sky Conference. Yates has certainly shown flashes of that potential in the past two seasons.
But Yates has a goal of being a better pass-rusher this year, and hopes to become a player that can prevail more often in one-on-one situations.
“Tucker’s a war daddy. He loves football. He works his tail off,” Choate said. “He’s trimmed down a little bit and he’s more explosive. And he’s a really smart football player.
“It’s not like he’s an undersized guy. I think he’s plenty big enough to be a dominant player in this league, especially with his level of football intelligence.”
The defense as a whole has identified its pass rush as an area in need of advancement. In 2016, the Bobcats had a league-low 15 quarterback sacks.
A rejuvenated Yates, who sat out spring practice while recovering from surgery, wants to play a bigger role in whatever improvement occurs. Choate believes he’ll have that chance.
“The edge part of the pass rush is really important, but we need to have some guys that can win one-on-one inside, too, because if we are (blitzing) and you get a one-on-one, we’ve got to be able to do that,” Choate said. “I think one of his motivations was to become a bit more effective (as a) pass rusher.
“He felt (if) having a little more twitch and a little bit more quickness off the ball by losing a few pound that it was going to help him.”
“It’s good having ‘Tuck’ back for the fall,” sophomore defensive end Derek Marks said. “He’s looking a lot stronger than he was a year ago. We have high expectations for him. We expect him to be a leader for us and to make plays.”
Much of what makes an effective defensive lineman is a drive of being better and working harder than the guy directly in front of you. Yates said the Bobcats are making more headway in that department in Choate’s second year as coach.
Yates indicated that Saturday’s helmets-and-shoulder-pads practice was the team’s best outing so far.
“Everyone was flying around and hooting around,” Yates said. “I haven’t seen practice like this for a long time. The competitiveness is high. The offense will make a big play and the defense will come back and make another big play.
“The competitiveness of this camp has been one that I’ve not see seen yet. And I think that’s going to make a big difference.”