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MONTANA STATE FOOTBALL NOTEBOOK

Notebook: Montana State's roster churn continued over summer; players pack on pounds

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MSU football practice

Montana State defensive backs Eric Zambrano (1) and Jake D'Agostino (28) prepare for a drill during spring practice on March 26 at Bobcat Stadium.

BOZEMAN — The Montana State football team has gained and lost a significant number of players since its spring game.

Roster churn from spring to fall is nothing new because so many freshmen arrive on campus. But even more players have joined and departed MSU this year because of the four-year-old transfer portal, and the Bobcats have gained and lost a handful of other players for different reasons.

On Friday, MSU announced that junior defensive back Eric Zambrano left the team for personal reasons. Cats head coach Brent Vigen didn’t comment further during his Saturday media availability.

Zambrano is one of 13 players to leave MSU since the Sonny Holland Classic on April 23. Other than starting right tackle TJ Session (who transferred to Cal), Zambrano was the biggest 2021 contributor to depart.

Zambrano played all 15 games and started 14 at cornerback, compiling 26 tackles, one interception and nine pass breakups. The California native was a reliable contributor in a secondary that played without injured corners James Campbell and Tyrel Thomas for much of the season.

Zambrano likely wouldn’t have played corner this coming season if he remained on the roster. He moved to safety during spring camp.

Also on Friday, MSU defensive coordinator Willie Mack Garza said defensive back Dru Polidore is “nursing an injury” and isn’t sure how long he’ll be out. Polidore, a freshman who redshirted at Air Force last season, is one of four Cats currently out with injuries. The other three are senior returning starters: running back Isaiah Ifanse, defensive tackle Kyle Rygg and wide receiver Coy Steel.

MSU is in “a month-to-month mode” with Ifanse, Vigen said Wednesday. Ifanse is on the “back half of his recovery” and might miss MSU’s season opener against McNeese State on Sept. 3, Vigen added.

Ifanse is a 2022 preseason All-American who earned multiple All-America honors last year after breaking MSU’s single-season rushing record and leading the Cats to the Football Championship Subdivision title game against North Dakota State.

“He's really been diligent about his recovery,” Vigen said. “His surgery going back to the late winter got pushed back because of when our season finished. I don't think we would trade that. He wouldn't trade that. He came back and played in that championship game for good reasons.”

Vigen said Rygg and Steel are “on the mend.” Both suffered season-ending injuries in the first four games of 2021.

A pair of sophomore wide receivers, Cam Gardner and Andrew Patterson, are not on the fall camp roster because they’re “working on some things on the academic side,” Vigen said, adding that “we could see them down the road.”

Gardner made five catches for 62 yards and a touchdown in nine games last fall, while Patterson appeared in four games and tallied a 44-yard reception.

A total of 31 players on the fall camp roster were not listed on the spring game roster. Twenty-three of them are true freshmen, five are transfers and one is a walk-on: defensive tackle Devin Slaughter.

The 6-foot-3, 281-pound Slaughter graduated from Sisters (Oregon) High School in 2016, then attended Oregon State. He planned to walk onto the Beavers’ football team, according to Vigen, but that didn’t work out. Slaughter enlisted in the United States Army in 2018 and served for a few years, then went back to school, this time at MSU. He told MSU’s coaches this past spring that he was interested in walking onto the team, and they welcomed him.

“I’m glad everything’s aligned,” Vigen said Saturday. “We’re still kind of figuring out what he can and can’t do, but he’s a hard worker, and I think he does have some ability.”

Another addition that hasn’t been publicized is running back Lucas Tuski. Like receiver Zachary Dodson-Greene, who committed to MSU in May, Tuski is a fairly recent preferred walk-on, Vigen said. Tuski graduated from Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon, in the spring. The 6-0, 215-pounder initially committed to Southern Oregon of the NAIA’s Frontier Conference.

Vigen, other MSU spokespeople and/or the players themselves provided the reasons (in parentheses) for the following additions, absences and departures since the spring game. One name not included is Class of 2022 preferred walk-on linebacker Zac Waible, who is grayshirting.

Additions

DT Ethan Abbott (true freshman), QB Luke Abshire (true freshman), OL Omar Aigbedion (true freshman), WR Christian Anaya (true freshman), DB Michael Armstrong (true freshman), DB Takhari Carr (true freshman), WR Zachary Dodson-Green (true freshman), DB Caden Dowler (true freshman), WR Taco Dowler (true freshman), DE Logan Fredericksen (true freshman), WR Marqui Johnson (transfer), K/P Casey Kautzman (true freshman), S Max Kimball (true freshman), LB Ryan Krahe (true freshman), OL Burke Mastel (true freshman), WR Malik Mullins (transfer), OL Conner Moore (true freshman), FB Max Murphy (true freshman), OL Tommy Nilson (true freshman), OL Bear Old (true freshman), OL Jaden Perkins (true freshman), DT Jaren Perkins (true freshman), S Rhedi Short (transfer), DL Devin Slaughter (walk-on), WR Rylan Schlepp (true freshman), WR Dylan Snyder (true freshman), WR Clevan Thomas Jr. (transfer), RB Lucas Tuski (true freshman), DE Jake Vigen (true freshman), RB Jared White (true freshman), RB Kaegun Williams (transfer).

Absences

WR Cam Gardner (academics), RB Isaiah Ifanse (injury), WR Andrew Patterson (academics), DB Dru Polidore (injury), DL Kyle Rygg (injury), WR Coy Steel (injury), DB Eric Zambrano (personal reasons).

Departures

QB Casey Bauman (transfer), WR Charles Brown (transfer), DB Tadan Gilman (retirement), OL Jack Harlow (focusing on school), RB DeMareus Hosey (transfer), RB Nolan Iverson (unspecified), WR Jamahd Monroe (transfer), OL Conor Reitler (unspecified), RB Jaalen Rening (unspecified), OL TJ Session (transfer), WR Jaden Smith (transfer), OL Cole Snyder (transfer), WR Tanner Trafton (unspecified).

Bobcats get yoked during offseason

MSU linebacker Danny Uluilakepa roomed with defensive tackle Sebastian Valdez last year, when both were redshirt freshmen. Valdez was listed at 251 pounds to begin the 2021 season. He’s now 278.

What did Valdez do to gain nearly 30 pounds?

“I don’t know. Eating,” Uluilakepa said with a laugh Saturday.

Sophomore defensive end Brody Grebe has put on about 10 pounds since last year, and he provided a more detailed diet explanation.

“You’ve got to get a ton of calories, but you want to get the right calories,” Grebe said Wednesday. “The thing about the summer is you get to workouts early, you’ve got to eat before workouts, you’ve got to eat after, you’ve got to (drink a) protein shake here. You’re just constantly eating throughout the day, and if you’re not, then you’re not making the progress you need to.”

Beef has been Grebe’s weight-gaining food of choice during his MSU career. Sophomore running back Elijah Elliott also used a protein-heavy diet to bulk up from about 175 pounds last year to 195 right now. Elliott pounded Creatine, protein shakes, sausage and a dozen eggs a day. Yes, a day.

“Whatever way I could do it, I wanted to do it,” Elliott said Wednesday. “That was my way.”

Elliott is hardly the first and won’t be the last football player to eat like a bear preparing for hibernation. Running backs don’t need to be as big as linemen to succeed, but Elliott learned the importance of extra muscle during his injury-filled 2021 season.

“Running at 175 is not it. You get hurt a lot, and I was getting banged up,” he said. “So my main focus was putting that weight on so I can last longer.”

Fall Football Camp, MSU

Montana State offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright (second from left) shouts instructions as Elijah Elliott (13), RJ Fitzgerald (41), Jared White and Lane Sumner (24) look on Friday at Bobcat Stadium.

Manning enjoying reunion with ‘best friend’

One of MSU’s new players, Rhedi Short, has a close connection with fellow senior safety Jeffrey Manning Jr.

Both Manning and Short graduated from Los Angeles’ Cathedral High in 2017 and went on to play in the Pac-12: Manning at Oregon State, Short at Arizona. Manning transferred to MSU a year ago, while Short joined the Cats in June.

Despite their ties, Manning wasn’t the first person at MSU to gauge Short’s interest in transferring. Manning said he first heard about the possibility during a meeting when defensive line coach Shawn Howe asked Manning about Short.

“I was like, ‘Rhedi Short? That’s my best friend. What about him?’” Manning said Wednesday. “Once they told me they were all hands on deck with him, I just did my part.”

Fall Football Camp, Media Day, Bobcat Football

Montana State safety Jeffrey Manning Jr. talks to reporters during fall camp media day on Wednesday at the Bobcat Athletic Complex.

As seniors, Manning and Short helped Cathedral begin the 2016 season 11-0, but the Phantoms ended their season in the CIF Southern Section Division 3 quarterfinals. Manning, who dyed his hair blonde because he’s a fan of soccer star Neymar, is carrying that disappointment and last year’s FCS championship loss into his final college season. He’s excited for the opportunity to win that elusive title with his best friend.

“That’s always been our goal, to not only play with each other but play at the highest level, which is obviously getting back to Frisco,” Manning said. “I feel like he has a great opportunity to do that with us this year.”

Email Victor Flores at victor.flores@406mtsports.com and follow him on Twitter at @VictorFlores406

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