BOZEMAN — Not too many guys can say they’ve intercepted a pass from Easton Stick.
Just seven players picked off the former North Dakota State quarterback last season, one reason why Stick was able to lead the Bison to their seventh FCS national title.
But Montana State linebacker Josh Hill made his way onto that shortlist during the Bobcats’ second-round playoff loss at NDSU last December — perhaps an unforeseen event considering it was the only game in which Hill was healthy enough to play in 2018.
Now that he’s healthy again, Hill looks to bring back his hallmark traits — smarts, toughness and leadership — to a deep linebacker corps for a full season.
“I’m as sore and tired as everybody else,” Hill, a redshirt senior, said after fall camp practice Tuesday afternoon. “But it’s a really good feeling to be back and be part of this again.
“I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t special and if this wasn’t something that was enjoyable.”
It’s almost a year to the day (Aug. 9) that Hill, a former Kalispell Glacier standout and Class AA defensive MVP, underwent surgery that forced him to miss 12 games of the 2018 campaign. Suffering from what he called back and hip issues that affected his balance, there was even some question as to whether Hill would ever play again.
Though he played and performed well against NDSU, Hill still wasn’t able to participate in the Bobcats’ offseason program and said he didn’t truly start feeling better until April or May of this year. He was held out of spring drills but was a full participant in summer workouts.
Considering recent history, Choate said the Bobcats are going to “be smart” with Hill during fall camp by limiting his contact and regulating his reps. The defense needs him for the long term, and that’s something first-year linebackers coach Bobby Daly uses as a constant reminder.
“He’s a got a quick trigger. When he makes a decision, he goes. And it’s full speed,” said Daly, a star linebacker at Montana State from 2005-08. “I’ve got to kind of pull the reins back on him because he’s had those injuries in the past. His game hasn’t changed. He’s still that fast, physical guy.”
Perhaps most important is where Hill is mentally.
The toughest thing about last season, Hill said, was not being able to play against Montana — and not being a part of one of the most dramatic finishes in the 118-year history of the rivalry.
Montana State’s defense thwarted the Grizzlies on the goal line with mere seconds left, forcing a fumble that preserved a 29-25 victory and sealed the Bobcats’ first three-game winning streak over UM since the mid-1980s.
(Incidentally, MSU graduated linebacker Grant Collins, one of the heroes of the Cat-Griz game and a consummate leader.)
“It hit me pretty hard not getting to be a part of one of the best goal-line stands that I’ve ever seen,” Hill said. “It definitely shook me.”
“It’s completely different,” he said. “This time last year I was getting ready to have surgery and miss a whole season. And now I’m here participating. It’s a completely different mindset.”
Hill is still only listed at 215 pounds, but what he lacks in size he makes up for with intelligence and leadership.
The question is how Hill will fit in among an emerging group of middle linebackers. The battle at the that position has been one of the best so far in camp, a competition between the likes of Hill, sophomore Callahan O’Reilly (6-2, 230), Nolan Askelson (6-1, 220) and junior college transfer Blake Flovin (6-1, 230).
That’s not to mention what the Bobcats have at the other inside spot — particularly junior Michael Jobman and sophomore Chad Kanow, who have bulked up at 240 and 235 pounds, respectively.
Additionally, Choate said senior Walker Cozzie (6-0, 215) has taken on more of a leadership role, and that true freshman Jaharie Martin (6-1, 230) of Lakeland, Florida, has turned heads.
Of course, it’s been well-documented that last year’s starting quarterback, Troy Andersen (6-4, 240), has moved to strong-side linebacker, where he and Daniel Hardy (6-3, 215) make up an athletic duo.
Andersen was originally recruited to MSU to play linebacker, but instead rushed for 1,927 yards and 26 touchdowns in two years on offense.
“We’ve got some dudes that can do some stuff around here,” Choate said of the linebackers. “As I told them during our special teams drills, you guys better look great in these, because we’re not taking 14 linebackers to (Texas Tech for the season opener).
“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that can play, and so that’s going to be a really tough decision for us.”
Andersen’s presence, Hill said, bolsters the entire linebacker group.
“He can do basically anything you want him to do,” Hill said. “I think he’ll fly around and make a lot of plays for us. He’s smart, he’s physical and he’s got a good nose for the ball.”
On the other side is outside pass-rusher/hybrid linebacker Amandre Williams, a 250-pound dropdown transfer from the University of Washington.
Daly, in his return to MSU after a stellar playing career, knows he has options at linebacker.
“My job’s not going to be easy this year,” Daly said. “I’ve got a lot of good players. I’m going to have to find a way to get them on the field.”
The Bobcats will conduct their seventh practice of fall camp Thursday morning in Bozeman.