MISSOULA — Eastern Washington head football coach Aaron Best walked up to senior tight end Jayce Gilder and playfully teased him while he was being interviewed during the Big Sky Kickoff in Spokane last month.
“Is your shirt tighter now?” Best asked.
“Yes,” Gilder responded, his biceps bursting out of his red polo shirt.
“During the interview as opposed to pre-interview?” Best followed up.
“It definitely is. Yep. Yeah,” Gilder said, laughing.
Whether Best was ribbing Gilder because he’s kept putting on muscle and looked less and less like the high school quarterback he was, or because he was finally getting media attention, either would make sense for the former walk-on from Corvallis, Montana.
Gilder enters his final college season as a tight end who’s continued to take on bigger roles for the reigning FCS national runner-up. He’s a senior captain and was honored to be representing the school where he’s found a home after not being offered by Montana or Montana State.
“Looking back at it five years ago, to be where I am now, it’s been quite the ride,” said Gilder, who’s one of just 11 Montana natives to earn a varsity letter at Eastern Washington, and the first since 1987.
'Force' of nature
Gilder is the unquestioned leader in the tight ends room for Eastern Washington, having earned three varsity letters, while the six others have combined for two.
Gilder’s role has increased over the years as a hybrid blocking and pass-catching tight end while he’s grown and matured. He also has Best to thank in part for that because Best changed the spread offense the Eagles had run and reintroduced the tight end position as a more focal point when he took over in 2017.
As a pass catcher, Gilder broke out last season with 20 receptions for 237 yards and seven touchdowns after combining for nine catches, 105 yards and three touchdowns in 2016 and 2017. But Gilder embraces the blocking aspect, Best said, especially in the red zone.
“He does both and enjoys them both equally,” Best said. “When you see things, you try to attack things appropriately. If that means a red zone one week or if that means catching no balls one week, he’s a selfless person.
“He was that force to be reckoned with at the end of the year.”
Gilder’s favorite moments have been those postseason runs. In 2016, the Eagles lost in the semifinals to Youngstown State on a last-second touchdown. Last year, they made it to the national championship game and gave North Dakota State a challenge before falling late.
In that title contest, Gilder scored on a 2-yard pass during a fake field goal attempt that pulled Eastern Washington within 17-10. That capped a nine-play, 59-yard drive in which he caught three passes for 37 yards.
“I was exhausted,” Gilder recalled. “My buddy, the other tight end, senior, he was coming in and we had a fake field goal planned up for that game. He was just giving me the signal to stay in. I was like, ‘All right, here we go.’ I was super pumped up like, ‘I’m going to get in there.’
“We ran the play and got in. The emotion took over me. I was stomping. I just laughed at myself when I saw the celebration, just screaming, going crazy just stomping around. That was unreal just hearing our fans and to be able to do that on such a big stage was a very cool moment for me.”
'Building the nest'
Gilder comes into his final season at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, about 25 pounds heavier than when he starred as a high school quarterback.
He was a Griz fan growing up in Corvallis, about 40 miles south of Missoula, going to football games and getting basketball posters signed by players.
But neither Montana nor Montana State ever extended even a walk-on offer to Gilder, an all-state quarterback, the son of a former Cats basketball player and the grandson of an ex-Montana offensive lineman.
“Just saying they’ll call and then you just don’t ever hear from them again,” he recalled.
Then-Eastern Washington tight ends coach John Graham gave Gilder a preferred walk-on offer when he was wowed by him on the basketball court after Corvallis football coach Clayton Curley sent Graham film of his star player.
Gilder chose the Eagles over a scholarship from Montana Tech and has gone from a walk-on to being on scholarship after two years to being chosen as one of five team captains this season.
“That says a ton,” Best said. “He’s worked his tail off. He’s very studious, got great grades. He is an awesome person. I love to see him smile because he’s having fun when he smiles, and he enjoys the game but is probably more passionate about the game than most of our guys on our team.”
Heading into his final season, expectations are high once against for the Eagles. The media and coaches both selected them to win the conference.
With a dynamic playmaker at quarterback in Eric Barriere, the expectations should be high. But Eastern Washington has to replace its offensive and defensive coordinators and 27 seniors.
“As far as just going to the natty and winning it all, those are the expectations for us, and to advance the standard that we’ve already put on for this year. That’s the goal,” Gilder said.
He’ll make a final trip to Missoula when Eastern Washington plays Montana on Oct. 26. Gilder expects he’ll have to get 30-40 extra tickets for the family and friends who are dotting Corvallis with Eagle red in Grizzly country.
“We’re gaining a few,” Gilder said. “We’re building the nest a little bit with that down in Montana. A few buddies and a few family and friends. Getting a few more, but it’s still pretty heavily Griz.”