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Montana offensive lineman Mike Ralston protects quarterback Gresch Jensen during the Grizzlies’ game against North Dakota this season.

TOM BAUER, Missoulian

MISSOULA — It's not unheard of for college football players to change positions.

Cooper Sprunk moved from tight end to center. Tucker Schye went from linebacker to defensive end. Makena Simis moved from quarterback to wide receiver. 

Mike Ralston, Montana's starting right tackle, has them beat and then some. 

As Ralston recounted his journey around the gridiron, he went through the years, counting on his fingers how many different places on the field he's lined up.

Ralston came to Montana as a tight end, briefly moved to defensive end, slid over to defensive tackle, went back to offense as a wide receiver, then switched to right tackle.

"So five," Ralston said after going over all the spots.

Five position changes? That's an abnormal amount, but that's Ralston's story. 

"The fact that he's moved around so much, obviously the big word there is resilient," offensive line coach Chad Germer said. "Many guys would feel like it wasn't in the cards for them after they've been moved a couple times. He never once felt that way.

"Every spot that he's played, he felt that it was going to be a good deal for him. He felt that way about playing offensive line and unfortunately it took four years of his career to figure out what his best spot was, but I think he's pretty sincere on finishing it right."

***

Ralston didn't play Pop Warner football like many of his peers. His first snap in pads came his freshman year of high school at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon. 

"My mom never wanted me to play because she thought I would get hurt," Ralston said. "I was always over the weight limit to carry the ball, but I was faster or just as fast as everybody, so it was kind of frustrating, so I turned to other sports in the offseason."

Those other sports were baseball and basketball. 

While he was at Jesuit High School, his basketball team won two state 6A championships to extend the school's streak to four straight. On the diamond, Ralston was an all-state left-handed pitcher for his baseball team and was a two-time captain. 

"Going through high school, baseball was always my best sport," Ralston said. "I always wanted to play that in college."

As Ralston worked his way through high school football, and moved to Eugene, Oregon, for his senior year his attitude began to change.

"I developed a passion for it," Ralston said. "And when Montana started recruiting me, it was a perfect fit."

Ralston attended Sheldon High School in Eugene his senior year and played with current Grizzlies Connor Strahm and James Banks. Ralston and Strahm signed with Montana during 2013's national signing day, while Banks went to junior college and UAB before finding his way to UM. 

"It's funny out it worked out," Ralston said. "We were kinda frustrated that James wasn't getting recruited and for him to end up at Montana after we all three played together in high school was really cool. It was fun coming here with Connor, playing with him my last year of high school and coming here, it was nice to have a close friend." 

That senior season alongside Banks and Strahm, Ralston suited up as a wide-out, defensive end and punter. He earned an all-state nod as for his efforts on defense and all-conference honor as a punter. 

"I played soccer when I was little, and I could always kick it far, so it was something I was naturally good at," Ralston said, laughing. "I wasn't nearly as good as Eric (Williams) or any of those guys."

Ralston was initially recruited to Montana as a pro-style tight end and came to campus weighing 245 pounds. This season, Ralston weighs 301 pounds, thanks to the transition to offensive line. 

When Sprunk moved to offensive line in 2015, he enlisted the assistance of the upperclassmen on the line to help him pack on the pounds.

Sprunk said Ralston didn't need help. 

"That dude can eat more than anyone I know," Sprunk said, laughing. "He eats so much it's incredible. I remember one time, we were in Oregon and we were going to get some food after a workout and he got two entrees and two appetizers. I just got an entree and an appetizer. He ate both of them before I could even eat mine. I looked at him like, 'No freaking way.'"

***

Even though Ralston has the fewest starts on the offensive line, he's playing an integral part. 

Ralston is one of four seniors on the offensive line. David Reese, Robert Luke, Sprunk and Ralston all bring veteran leadership to the trenches. And Angel Villanueva, the fifth starter on the line, has more starts than both Ralston and Sprunk. 

"He meshes really well with all of us," Sprunk said. "It's huge to have him on the offensive line. It means a lot to have him out there. It's nice having that senior leadership out there too."

Their hard work has paid off.

Their job is to protect Montana quarterback Gresch Jensen, a player who was recently tabbed to the Jerry Rice Award watch list. That award goes to the national freshman of the year. 

On Wednesday, Jensen and Stitt credited the offensive line as a whole for Jensen's dominance. 

Ralston chalks up his individual success to his past stops along the way. 

"Everything's kind of culminated into this one position that I've been playing and am having some success at," he said. "It's nice having played d-line knowing what a D-lineman wants to do to me as an o-lineman. Having played (wide receiver), knowing when the H's (receivers) are next to us in a formation, what they're trying to do to help the O-line. I think it's helped give me a well-rounded perspective of the game."

Germer thinks the same thing.

"He's obviously a good football mind where he understands the game and how the pieces fit together. Even though he'd never played offensive line until this year, he went against the offensive line playing D-line and then he played next to them playing tight end. 

"You gotta know how the other side works, how the guy next to you works, so that gave him a little bit of an advantage and made it a little easier because he's got a pretty broad-base knowledge of football from playing those other spots."

Ralston's growth as a player has been blatantly evident to Germer. 

"He adds more and more every week," Germer said. The thing that he was missing when he first moved over was reps. He, even being a senior, has improved so much from week to week. Each game is a new season for him. When he first moved over, he was big, he was strong, he was athletic. But there was no substitute for just getting the reps. Now he's getting those and he's really been a nice addition to our front."

***

The end of Ralston's eligibility is on the horizon. The Griz only have four more games before the regular season is over. 

"It's kinda weird," Ralston said. 

Before the season began, Ralston said he was talking to Sprunk about it being their last season. He said the novelty wore off as fall camp rolled around.

"We're going into, what, our eighth game now?" Ralston said. "It's almost something I'm not thinking about anymore. I just want to enjoy every game, practice, taking it one day at a time." 

But as Ralston looked around an empty Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the fact that his career is drawing to a close hit him, if only for a second. 

"This place holds a very special place in my heart," he said. "No one in my family has graduated from college, so I think having graduated in the spring, that was a really good experience. Just my teammates, like Coach Stitt says it all the time, 'These are the guys you're gonna be best friends with your whole life.' A guy like Cooper comes out first to mind. He's gonna be in my wedding, everything like that.

"The relationships I've had here are definitely going to last a long time." 

Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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