MISSOULA — California high school senior Micah Ashton never played organized football until his senior season of high school.
Now he’s coming to the Montana Grizzlies as a preferred walk-on in the 2020 recruiting class.
“It was unreal to have the opportunity to play D-I football after just one year of playing,” said Ashton, who played at Del Norte High School in San Diego. “I had D-II and D-III offers coming in, but when Montana offered, it was really special.”
Ashton’s only football experience before playing his senior season was throwing around the ball with his family, and he felt he was always good at making catches. The 6-foot-5, 218-pound tight end had previously competed in soccer, basketball and wrestling, among other sports, and was getting looks to play college soccer.
“I had a D-I offer for soccer my sophomore year and a lot of interest, so a lot of people thought it was a mistake for me to quit soccer for football,” Ashton said. “But it ended up being better that I played football, and I enjoyed it a lot more, too.”
Ashton walked into Del Norte coach Leigh Cole’s office in January 2019 and told him he wanted to play football. Cole was excited to have an athlete like Ashton, who came in at about 185 pounds, joining the program that’s seen a boom in students coming out for the sport.
“I almost joined multiple times in high school, and then by my senior year, I finally decided to just do it no matter what,” Ashton said. “I’m super glad I did, not just for the offers but because it was so much fun to play.”
Ashton had to learn the basics of route running so he could better utilize his speed, which Cole clocked at a 4.65-second 40-yard dash. He also had to learn how to lower his shoulder pads to make it harder for defensive players to tackle him.
It took about two to three weeks of 7-on-7 practices for Cole to see Ashton was enjoying football and had the dedication to excel.
“He’s a gifted athlete,” Cole said. “He’s very talented with his size and athletic ability. But most of all is his attitude. He’s just such a positive young man, but he just works so very hard. He asks questions. He listens. He learns quickly.
“He’ll be a tremendous asset to Montana. They’re getting a steal. As I was talking to different coaches, I told them he’s below the radar, you’ll want to grab this opportunity. He just wants to be great, and that’s the best thing about him.”
Ashton ended up leading Del Norte in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, tallying five touchdown catches on about 35 receptions. He did that playing in Division IV, the second-smallest 11-man classification in California, on a team that went 2-9 against eight playoff teams, seven teams from larger divisions, three league champions and one state champ.
“He’s one of the best tight ends I’ve had, and I’ve coached for 30 years,” said Cole, who coached NFL running back Damien Williams, cornerback Quenton Meeks and tight end Teyo Johnson in high school.
“His upside is just off the chart. I think he’ll carry 240, 250 (pounds) easily and will still be fast with great hands while learning the nuances of finding space and blocking well. He’s had one season of football, so imagine four years from now when he’ll know all the ins and outs and nuances of the game. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”
Ashton attended the same high school as current Griz safety Robby Hauck, the son of head coach Bobby Hauck, although the two never played together. Cole didn’t coach Robby, leading the team from 2011-14 before returning in 2018, and hadn’t known Bobby.
“Coach Hauck still had connections with our athletic director,” Ashton said, “which helped them develop interest (in me).”
Ashton was offered by the Griz on Feb. 5, his first D-I offer, and committed on March 9.
“I chose Montana because they’re giving me an opportunity to become the best football player, person and student-athlete I can be,” Ashton said. “(They) have great coaches and a super successful program that I can’t wait to be a part of.”