Everyone in Montana could have guessed that Caleb Kidder, a 275-pounder who stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall and sports Montana's No. 37 legacy jersey, would start in the middle of the Grizzlies' defensive line this fall.

Kidder is huge, powerful and fast, destined for a breakout season in maroon. For as obvious as Kidder's starting call was, Jamal Wilson's spot was that inconceivable.

And yet on opening day, as the Grizzlies entertained four-time defending national champion North Dakota State and more than a million Americans watching on national television, there was Wilson, his 5-foot-11 frame in stark contrast to the monstrous Kidder beside him in the starting lineup.

Saturday's victory over the Bison marked the 20th career start for Wilson, though the prior 19 had each come at fullback on offense. Wilson hadn't played tackle since his sophomore year of high school. He'd never played defense at the college level before.

"Once I got the gist of it I started thinking more and more, 'Hey, I could really be good at this,'" Wilson said. "Once I realized that, I thought it wouldn't be crazy to think I could start when the season started."

Not crazy to Wilson, though perhaps to everyone else.


When the University of Montana handed the keys to coach Bob Stitt last December, making the outsider from Nebraska the 36th head coach in program history, Stitt brought with him an offensive interchange. Gone were the days of the power I-formation set.

Gone too were fullbacks and tight ends, positions so crucial to running the ball down the opposition's throat.

Some such players saw the writing on the wall, leaving the program before an ill-fated attempt to switch positions resulted in their expulsion. Others opted to try and make the move.

"You always have the thought of, well, maybe I played my last down," said Wilson, who along with fullback Riley Kack crossed the line of scrimmage to try out DT back in March.

Kack did not survive the round of cuts following spring ball.

This isn't the first encounter Wilson has had with change in his time playing college football. The Fontana, California native signed with Boise State in 2011, making three appearances as the Broncos' blocking back as a redshirt freshman the following fall.

But with the 2012 graduation of Kellen Moore, the NCAA's all-time winningest quarterback at the FBS level (50-3), and the implementation of a one-back pistol base offense, Boise no longer required fullbacks.

Wilson was left looking for opportunities elsewhere. The transition to defense at FBS would have been too steep, he figured.

"One of the biggest differences between this level (FCS at Montana) and that level is the line play," he said. "I think it would have been really, really difficult for me to compete with five or six other guys on scholarship playing D-line."

Over at Montana, the Grizzlies were one year deep into the Mick Delaney era. The head coach, who retired at the end of last season, making way for Stitt's triumphant arrival, had replaced the spread offense put in place by former coach Robin Pflugrad and returned the pro-style, run-first approach.

Hello, fullbacks.


Sophomore Nate Bradley ended spring football as the starting defensive tackle opposite Kidder, but something happened in the first week of fall camp. Wilson had made his transition.

"He's explosive and plays with good hands," senior teammate and defensive end Tyrone Holmes gave the scouting report. "I think the thing that's made him the most successful is he's just a hard worker. He comes to practice every day and he's ready to go."

Wilson took hold of the No. 1 job by the first fall scrimmage that next week and has yet to relinquish it. In his first action as a defender since his days at A.B. Miller High School -- he finished his prep career as a middle linebacker in 2009 -- Wilson got in on seven tackles in last week's win and helped stuff the run up the middle.

"It's because of what Jamal's made of. We could probably put him at quarterback and he'd be competing with Brady (Gustafson)," coach Stitt joked.

Though perhaps undersized for a typical DT, certainly compared to Montana's senior Tonga Takai (6-2, 305) a year ago, Wilson fared well against NDSU's massive and experience offensive line, a unit with more than 100 combined career starts.

Wilson had zero in the trenches remember.

"We said for a long time that as a unit they were really good, but as individuals we didn't think they were the best players," he said. "I felt as long as we won those individual battles we would probably fare OK. If you play football, watch football, everybody knows it's not the size of the dog in the fight. Every day of the week."

So it turned out. Though the Bison ran for 229 yards in the game, the Griz held NDSU to just 64 when it counted in the second half on their way to the comeback win.


And while we're on the subject of said comeback, Montana's final play featured a familiar face in the backfield. Wilson trotted out in the Grizzlies "jumbo" double-fullback offensive formation at the goal line, blocking out the NDSU defense to help running back Joey Counts find the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 2 seconds left.

Lined up at fullback once more, Wilson keyed the block on the left side that gave Counts the space he needed to score.

"After doing it for so long, it's almost natural being back over there," he said. "That was one of the craziest moments; those are the moments you play for right there."

Wilson's presence on offense has almost always come as a blocker. Last year he carried the ball just three times for a total of 1 yard. That did include a goal-line touchdown, though.

Montana's jumbo package is at odds with the rest of its offensive schemes. Gustafson, a 6-7 QB, practically has to kneel to get under center to receive the snap and his blocking unit boasts some of the best tacklers on the team.

Kidder lines up as a down tight end on the left while DE Mike Ralston, a former tight end before Stitt's switch-up, mans the right side. And the other fullback?

Typical middle linebacker Jeremiah Kose.

"I think 'Miah's pretty good at it to tell ya the truth," Wilson said. "I think he really is a natural."

And though Stitt said Wilson may not be a natural yet, his transition exhibits the kind of gumption that the coach looks for in his players. And sure, it's nice to have some guys who know how to block to toss in the backfield every once in a while.

"He's just one of those guys that whatever situation, whatever adversity that's thrown at him, he's gonna come out on top," Stitt said. "You're gonna see down the line once he leaves Montana that he's gonna be very successful outside of football also."

If Wilson has his way, he'll continue to have success inside the game for a bit first. The 22-year-old has balanced his weight in an area that allows him to succeed in his current role on defense without hampering his possible future at fullback.

At 265 pounds, he's found the sweet spot.

"That's the weight I feel I can play my best at and still, because I do plan on playing fullback at the professional level, that's the easiest transition for me to lose the weight I'll need to lose."

And if that doesn't work out? Well, Wilson is coming up on the completion of an undergraduate degree in political science. There's always law school.

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