BILLINGS — During his first stint at Rocky Mountain College when he was an assistant coach, Chris Stutzriem recruited Chad Nebel out of Shepherd High School based largely on potential.
Nebel, now a menacing 265-pound junior defensive tackle, has become everything the Battlin’ Bears had hoped for — and more.
“We knew we were going to get a hard-working kid, but I think he’s exceeded our expectations of what we thought we were getting, and that’s a testament to who he is and where he comes from,” said Stutzriem, now Rocky’s head coach.
Nebel’s performance tells the story.
During a condensed Frontier Conference football schedule this spring, Nebel has been one of the leaders on the Bears’ stingy defense. Through the first two games, Nebel has accumulated 12 tackles (1.5 for loss) and a sack from his interior line position, but perhaps more importantly has helped Rocky limit offenses to a league-low 2.4 yards per rush while racking up a conference-best 12 quarterback sacks.
Along with Nebel, linebacker Alex Bush, a transfer from NCAA Division I Texas Christian, has thrived. As has safety Ty Reynolds. They are among the Frontier leaders in sacks and tackles so far.
Though the Bears (0-2) dropped their first two outings by a combined nine points, they get another crack and their first spring victory when they host No. 21 Eastern Oregon (1-0) on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Herb Klindt Field.
“We’ve been so close, we’ve just got to put everything together,” Nebel said. “We’ve just got to work on finishing games. We’ve definitely had opportunities. A couple plays here and there and we easily could be 2-0 instead of 0-2.”
When he arrived at Rocky in 2017, Nebel was a project. And he was aware what it would take for him to become an effective front-seven player.
For starters, he had to get bigger and stronger. Nebel came out of Shepherd listed at 225 pounds, which isn’t bad for a first-year guy, but the one place in which he knew he’d have to spend a lot of time was the weight room.
If you’ve ever been inside Rocky’s weight training area, you know it’s small and quaint, and perhaps a tough sell for potential recruits. But that didn’t bother Nebel. It fits his blue-collar mindset.
“It’s kind of like a dungeon down there. It’s old-school,” Nebel said. “They were like, ‘This is what we have, but this is all we need. We’re going to work hard and we’re going to grind.’
“It was a grinder’s mentality. I really, really liked that about Rocky.”
In the years since, Nebel has put on 40 pounds of mostly muscle — what Stutzriem said is “good weight.”
Second, Nebel knew he had to improve his football IQ. That included a better understanding of pursuit angles, getting off blocks and applying his instincts and athletic ability to his overall defensive mindset.
That’s not atypical for a product of the Class B ranks in Montana, but it required critical thinking, self-scouting and a lot of coaching, which he says has been indispensable.
“Athletic-wise I’ve always been confident and felt like I had the ability to play, but my football knowledge just was not the greatest,” Nebel said. “My coaches really helped me develop my football knowledge. I think I’ve definitely improved from my redshirt year to now. It’s night and day.”
“He plays so hard. He’s a Montana kid — very tough,” Stutzriem said. “You know what you’re going to get with Chad. You know you’re going to get effort, he’s going to line up and play sound football … he’s a steady player. And then off the field he’s a great student and a great person. We’re very fortunate to have him be a part of our program.”
What will it take for Rocky to beat Eastern Oregon and move into the win column for the first time this spring? Stutzriem continues to demand better execution from his offense, which has scored a combined 15 points in two games and has struggled to finish drives.
But from a defensive perspective, there’s not a lot to change. Still, EOU presents a challenge.
The Mountaineers boast one of the more seasoned quarterbacks in the Frontier in senior Kai Quinn, who threw for 216 yards and a touchdown last week in a 28-0 victory over Carroll.
“They’re pretty big up front,” Nebel said. “They run a lot of stuff. They like to throw the ball a lot. I definitely think pass rush is going to be huge. And they have a quarterback that will pull the ball and run if he has the opportunity.
“It’s huge to keep him in the pocket and play really good coverage, and then our defensive line has to get a really good rush like we’ve been doing.”
NOTES: Stutzriem said Rocky QB Nate Dick, who injured his foot on March 13 against Carroll, will miss his second consecutive game. Drew Korf started in place of Dick last week in a 10-3 loss at the College of Idaho. … Per the Frontier Conference’s no-spectator policy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, spectators will not be permitted inside Herb Klindt Field.