In the FCS Huddle: Montana State has Texas recruiting pipeline

The sandlot dreams in Texas aren't always what they used to be.

These days, mamas let their babies grow up to be Bobcats.

As Montana State (10-2) heads to Huntsville, Texas, on Saturday to play top- ranked Sam Houston State (12-0) in a FCS quarterfinal-round playoff game, there are plenty in the Lone Star State who will be pulling for the visitors.

In recent years, Montana State has unearthed a recruiting pipeline from Texas to their campus in Bozeman. The Bobcats have 19 players on their roster who hail from Texas, including five who made the All-Big Sky Conference first or second team this season, quarterback DeNarius McGhee and running back Tray Robinson from Euless, linebacker Jody Owens from Mesquite, cornerback Darius Jones from Rockwall and place-kicker Jason Cunningham from Amarillo.

It's a surprising dynamic for the Bobcats, especially when one considers their heated rival, Montana, doesn't have any players from a Texas high school.

While the state of Montana is called "The Treasure State" because of its rich mineral reserves, the Bobcats know to head to Texas for additional treasure.

Much of the recruiting success is credited to Justin Gaines, who was Montana State's defensive backs coach for three seasons from 2008 to 2010 before he departed for the University of North Texas last December. Now 34 years old, he was a cornerback whom the Montana Grizzlies plucked from the Texas high school ranks. He didn't suffer from a culture shock, instead embracing life in Big Sky country while he played in the late 1990s.

Gaines, who coached at smaller Texas schools (Texas Lutheran, Texas A&M Commerce and Midwestern State) before arriving at Montana State, believed from the start that he could sell recruits on how people in Montana are as passionate about football as Texans.

"When I got the job there with (Montana State) Coach (Rob) Ash, he didn't really know a whole lot about Texas (recruiting)," Gaines said. "I told him I was pretty confident we would could get kids up there.

"I come from Florida, I grew up in Texas and Florida, and I just knew (Montana is) a special place. It's like a Division I FBS atmosphere, without a doubt, at those schools. So if a kid doesn't know much about it, once they came up there, they would love it. The fan base is rabid, the stadiums are nice at both Montana and Montana State. Texas football is really big and those kids want to go to a place that football is important to them. And Montana and Montana State, it's very important to those people."

Gaines remembers Montana State having only one player from Texas, a junior college transfer named David Taylor, when he became a member of the Bobcats' staff. He then helped to sign 18 players from Texas.

He did so well in his first two years recruiting Texas that Montana State committed defensive line coach Bo Beck and running backs coach Kerry Dixon to recruit there as well.

The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex has been the most fertile area for Montana State. In other places, it could be a struggle to get through the front door.

"I had a mother actually tell me," Gaines said, "and the kid's at Sam Houston now, that she would rather have her son work at WalMart than go to Montana State."

With another recruit, who went to McNeese State, Gaines added, "Me and the offensive coordinator drove late one night from Dallas all the way to Jasper, which is a long drive, and got there at like 3 o'clock in the morning, and the kid was sitting on a visit (elsewhere) that weekend and he was hiding from us. We couldn't get him to talk to us. His coach was so embarrassed about it, but the kid wouldn't talk to us."

But enough doors opened to welcome arms for Gaines and the Bobcats. In fact, the size of Texas worked to their advantage because some of their recruits were overlooked by Texas schools.

Gaines said McGhee didn't get a scholarship offer from a FCS or Division II school in Texas. The competition for Owens came from South Dakota State. Cunningham was lightly recruited, with the Colorado School of Mines making one of the other big pushes for him.

"I know that weather is an issue," Gaines said. "I tried to sell them more on if you didn't get an FBS offer, go to the best FCS place you could possibly go. And I thought that Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston and those places couldn't compare because they're small fish in a big pond, but in Montana ...

"Don't focus on the weather, you're going to have good weather in the fall and in the summer the weather is way better than Texas. So focus on football. Get a good education, but go where football is important."

North Texas has a big recruiting weekend ahead for its football program, so Gaines will not attend Montana State's "home" game at Sam Houston State.

He's hoping both the Bobcats and Montana, which plays Northern Iowa on Friday, win their quarterfinals and stage a rematch in the national semifinals next week. He says it will be hard to keep him from that game.

"You can't even explain how excited I am for those kids to be able to go back to Texas and play a game like this against a great team like Sam Houston," Gaines said.

"It's absolutely killing me I can't go. I have a big recruiting weekend this weekend and can't come. I'm going to be rooting for them."


Last Week's Record: 5-3 (.625)

Season Record: 584-201 (.744)

X-Projected Winner

All Times ET

NCAA Division I Quarterfinals

Friday, Dec. 9

No. 5 Northern Iowa (10-2) at X-No. 4 Montana (10-2), 8 p.m., (ESPN, ESPN3) - Since the clocks were turned back last month, the Grizzles program seemingly has stepped back in time.

Saturday, Dec. 10

X-Montana State (10-2) at No. 1 seed Sam Houston State (12-0), noon (ESPN, ESPN3) - Perhaps the top-seeded Bearkats got their second-round scare out of their system, but Bobcats QB DeNarius McGhee is capable of leading a winning return to his native Texas.

Maine (9-3) at X-No. 3 Georgia Southern (10-2), 2 p.m. (ESPN3) - The Black Bears defense should consult Old Dominion about what to do, er, not to do against the Eagles' triple option.

Lehigh (11-1) at X-No. 2 North Dakota State (11-1), 4 p.m. (ESPN3) - The Bison defense is the best that Lehigh star QB Chris Lum has seen all season.

SWAC Championship Game

Saturday, Dec. 10

Alabama A&M (8-3) vs. X-Grambling State (7-4) at Birmingham, Ala., 1 p.m. (ESPNU, ESPN3) - A&M has the defense, but the Tigers the momentum with six straight wins under head coach Doug Williams.