By COLTER NUANEZ
Dylan Mahoney is a righty but he spent his first two years of college football doing everything on the left.
Mahoney, a third-year sophomore offensive lineman for the Montana State Bobcats, played a few years of American Legion baseball growing up in Great Falls. The C.M. Russell High product was a powerful right-handed hitter. Upon arrival in Bozeman, the 6-foot-6 athlete began his grooming as senior John Weidenaar’s heir apparent at left tackle.
He’s worked on putting on weight — he’s up to 270 pounds — and he honed the muscle memory it takes to play on the blind side of the line. But this spring, Mahoney has had to relearn many of his fundamentals.
With seniors Kyle Godecke and Alex Eekhoff on the shelf with injuries, the MSU offensive line has had to scramble to fill the starting lineup. It might have a silver lining as Mahoney has gotten all the first-team reps at right tackle in place of Eekhoff.
“If something bad was to happen next year, I could play both sides which is really nice,” Mahoney said. “(First-year offensive) Coach (Jason) Eck has done a great job helping me with the transition because I told him I’ve never played left before. It’s mostly muscle memory. Muscle memory on the left side is totally opposite of the right side.
“I feel like I’m doing well and trying to prove to the coaches that I can be a guy. Them giving me a lot of reps has shown me I can.”
Mahoney isn’t the only one getting his first live action with the starting offense. Junior Dillon Fraley, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound former walk-on out of Bigfork, has been working in at guard while also serving as the third center with redshirt freshman Austin Oldenburger out with an injury. Caleb Gillis, a 6-foot-6, 280-pounder who was once a 205-pound walk-on from Glenn, has transitioned from tackle to right guard. He’s still getting second-team reps at tackle.
“Gillis is a guy with a lot of upside,” said Eck, who took over for legendary offensive line coach Jason McEndoo. “He’s growing in his understanding for football. He’s a little raw with learning football.
“Our veteran guys, like John (Weidenaar) or Joel (Horn), when they make a mistake, you can go in and correct it and they know what they did wrong right away. Whereas Caleb, he’s not quite sure. He makes a mistake and he’s not even sure what he was supposed to do on it.
“He can still keep growing there, his understanding of the game. He can still continue to work on his lateral movement. But the size is not an obstacle anymore. He’s big enough and tough enough. He’s trying to make that jump now from being a guy who you would finish a game with if you were up big to a guy who you can put in against Montana or Eastern Washington.”
Montana State’s offense is flush with talent, from stud quarterback Dakota Prukop to a group of physically formidable tight ends, from a receiver group containing 10 players with a chance to break the rotation to a stable of three proven running backs each ripe for a breakout season. Building depth up front might be a blessing in disguise.
“You have to have seven or eight o-linemen that are ready to play,” Eck said. “I really feel injuries are a part of football so you have to build your team to absorb them. You can’t hold your breath and say you are screwed now because one guy got hurt. You have to keep working those guys in the second group to keep elevating their game.”
Weidenaar, a towering 6-foot-9, 290-pounder out of Manhattan, has started the last 38 games at left tackle. He earned third-team All-Big Sky Conference honors last season. Horn, a 6-foot-4, 320-pounder from Kalispell, thrived in his first year as MSU’s starting center, earning third-team all-league honors himself. Junior J.P. Flynn has been a phenom since cracking the starting lineup midway through his freshman year. His rookie season, he earned third-team All-Big Sky honors and last fall, he was a unanimous first-team all-conference selection. The trio has welcomed their new right side with open arms.
“They are all doing well,” Flynn said before Tuesday’s practice.. “The one thing this o-line preaches is brotherhood. One thing in a brotherhood is you trust each other no matter what, no matter where it is, when it is. Those guys, when they stepped, we expected the most out of them and they are doing the most that they can.”
Senior Anthony Knight and juniors Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke combined to rush for 1,407 yards on 288 carries (4.9 yards per carry) and scored 24 touchdowns last season behind the veteran group. With Mahoney, Fraley and Gillis in the fold, there hasn’t been much drop off.
“All three of those kids are some of the hardest workers I know in school and on the field,” said Brekke, who rushed for 427 yards and four touchdowns in 2014. “They show up every day and they are all smart kids on top of that. Gillis is an engineer, Fraley is a finance major and Mahoney is a geology major. None of those are easy. And coming out here and running the stuff they have to learn, they are doing a great job with all of that. Mahoney has put on a lot of weight, which has been good. They have the skill set and the work ethic and their time will come and they know that.”
The cultivation of depth has taken over as the primary storyline along the offensive front, an occurrence one might not have predicted a month ago. The last weekend of February, longtime offensive line coach Jason McEndoo took a similar position on Mike Gunday’s staff at Oklahoma State. The 2011 FCS Assistant Coach of the Year was the longest tenured MSU assistant of all-time. He helped coach seven All-Americas and one of his players served as a team captain in all but two of his 12 seasons.
“Losing Mac is tough but Jason Eck is a great teacher and a really, really good guy,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said when he hired Eck. “I know there is no comparison. Mac is Mac. He’s one of a kind, great, loyal Bobcat, excellent. Eight years with me, 12 years overall, that’s irreplaceable in many respects. But we got a good guy.”
The Bobcat offensive front is a little short-handed but the majority of the group now has eight practices, two half-scrimmages and a full scrimmage under their belts with Eck as the teacher.
“It’s different but we are all making it work,” Flynn said. “It can be frustrating at times but you have to trust that he knows more about football than we do. It’s one of those things that we are adjusting to and he’s adjusting to but we are making the best out of the situation.”
Eck, a member of Wisconsin’s 1998 Rose Bowl team, made Montana State his latest stop after two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Minnesota-Mankato. Eck's coaching career began as an offensive graduate assistant at his alma mater (1999-2001), and he held a similar position at Colorado (2002-03). He coached the offensive line at Idaho (2004-05), Winona (Minn.) State (2007-08), Ball State (2009-10), Hampton (2011) and Western Illinois (2011-12) before moving to Minnesota State. Additionally, he coached tight ends at Idaho in 2006 and picked up offensive coordinator duties at Winona State (co-coordinator, 2008) and Minnesota State-Mankato (2014).
Despite missing two seniors, he already likes the talent he’s inherited.
“I think our goal would be to be the best offensive line in FCS football and I think we have the talent and the veteran leadership to do it,” Eck said. “I just have to not screw it up. We have to keep going in that direction. I think John, Joel and JP have a chance to be the best at their positions in the conference.”
Colter Nuanez can be reached at BobcatBeat56@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @Bobcat_Beat. Photo by Brooks Nuanez.