BOZEMAN — Following a stellar play, his coaches and teammates may be impressed, but Callahan O’Reilly’s focus doesn’t wane.
Montana State defensive coordinator Freddie Banks jokes with O’Reilly, a Bobcats linebacker, in hopes of him smiling more. When he excels in practice, Banks reminds him he can celebrate.
But O’Reilly declines, Banks said. He just asks to line up for another repetition.
O’Reilly’s determination has been a staple for the Bobcats defense since he earned a starting role midway through the 2019 season. After that breakout campaign as a sophomore, the Bozeman native is eyeing an even stronger performance this year.
“Callahan is your hard-nosed football player. You love him. He doesn’t say much,” Banks said. “He’s just an old-school linebacker. Put him in the box, tell him what to do and he goes and gets the job done. He loves doing the dirty work.”
O’Reilly played quarterback in high school. After his move to his current position, he steadily gained confidence as he comprehended the team’s defensive game plans in 2019.
O’Reilly was in the starting lineup by the sixth week and ended as MSU’s leading tackler with 91. He has higher goals in 2021, though.
“More productivity and more playmaking,” O’Reilly said. “Tackles for loss, interceptions and big plays, things that can really change the course of the game. I think I can bring more of that this season.”
O’Reilly remained committed to this improvement, even amidst lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic. He did yoga at home and lifted weights.
Since last winter, he’s joined teammates for intense training sessions. This is why he’s confident the team will be “fully ready” by the opening game despite almost two years off.
“It’s just taking advantage of every day, just knowing the day is going to come back when you’re back on the field,” O’Reilly said. “You know that day is going to come back and you better be ready.”
O’Reilly’s intelligence and decision-making have stood out at MSU, including to new head coach Brent Vigen. O’Reilly couldn’t point to one particular skill he needs to work on. Rather, he simply wants to build his speed, strength and athleticism.
He’s particularly motivated because he takes pride in playing for the college in his hometown.
“It means the world honestly,” O’Reilly said. “For me to go out there and put my best out every week and just do what’s right for the team and help the team be the best that we can be, it means a lot to me.”
During the spring, O’Reilly was lining up at middle linebacker. In MSU’s defense, that’s out of the box, or away from the offensive and defensive linemen. This was different from what he was used to under the previous coaching regime.
However, the Bobcats shifted O’Reilly to will linebacker, a term usually associated with playing on the weak side of formations. This puts him closer to the interior linemen. This is the place he usually lined up at in 2019, and he’s eager to be at this spot.
“Really good instincts,” Vigen said. “He sees things well, and he’s physical. And what’s jumped out to me and what’s showed up as we’re moving through the summer, he’s improved his ability to run. His athleticism to me is continuing to take an upswing. And when you have that athleticism matched with a guy who can see things instinctually pretty fast, then you’ve got a linebacker who’s playing fast. You can have the fastest guy out there, but if he doesn’t see things, it’s kind of a moot point.
“We’re really excited about him. He’s really smart and really competitive. He has a chance to be a really complete linebacker.”
Vigen noted O’Reilly is in a “very similar place” and is comparably responsible for one particular gap along the line. His reaction to how plays unfold, though, may be slightly different. O’Reilly, Vigen said, is retraining his eyes and mind for his position.
Vigen added the Bobcats ask a lot of their will linebacker, from formation adjustments to shifting when offenses go in motion, because precise alignment is a crucial aspect before the snap.
“It’s all very detailed. So being intelligent but also being able to apply your intelligence from what you see is just as important,” Vigen said. “So you have to be instinctual and have to be intelligent and you have to be athletic, and (O’Reilly is) certainly looking like that’s the combination of the skills he brings to the table.”
MSU defensive end Daniel Hardy called O’Reilly one of the leaders of the Bobcats. He’s comfortable knowing O’Reilly is behind him if any ball carrier breaks through the defensive line.
“(People) saw in 2019 the things he was capable of, and I think his performance in 2019 isn’t even going to touch this season. He’s a great guy,” Hardy said. “I’m nothing but excited to see what he can do.”