Jeff Choate knew immediately there was something special about Tucker Yates.
A defensive-minded coach who took over the Montana State program prior to the 2016 season, Choate took one look at his sophomore defensive lineman from Colstrip and smiled.
“From the first time I met the kid I knew he was driven to be successful. Nobody worked harder in the weight room, extra time in there, extra time on his craft on the football field. He would drag the pop-ups into the gym in the middle of winter so he could get in reps, work on those so he could work on his strike and pass rush stuff,” said Choate. “That’s what immediately stood out to me, he was clearly driven to be great.”
Yates’ freshman season numbers had impressed his new head coach — 22 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, a quarterback hurry and recovered fumble — but those stats were all but expected from fans back home in Colstrip.
Yates capped a decorated prep career with the Colts, finishing as a three-time Class B all-state football player on the offensive and defensive lines. He added three Class B/C state wrestling championships in the heavyweight division, including one his senior season that lives on in Montana wrestling history.
“He’s almost become legendary in terms of Montana athletic lore with tearing his (pectoral muscle his senior season and winning) the state championship (wrestling) match his senior year,” Choate recalled.
A three-sport standout, Yates also added a pair of Class B shot put state championships his junior and senior seasons, tossing a winning put of 57 feet, 11 inches in 2014. He was also selected to compete in the Knights of Columbus Badlands Bowl, plus the Montana East-West Shrine Game.
Those talents transitioned well to Montana State, where Yates became one of the top defensive lineman in the Big Sky Conference, while pushing those around him to compete at their best, as well.
“He’s what we call an encourager and he shows others how to do it. As you continue to grow as a leader, you start to bring other people with you, and that’s what really stood out to me his junior and senior years, bringing other people with him, not just the football part of it, but building chemistry on our team, being the bridge between the defensive line and the safeties,” said Choate. “Get together and have a barbecue, hang out, get to know one another outside of football. Create that tightness that carries teams through tough and difficult times. That showed up a ton.
“He was always one of those guys, when he was doing extra by himself early, he was bringing other guys along with him, often time sit was the entire d-line. I think the d-line took on the persona of Tucker in terms of taking pride and being a tough guy, hard working and that’s what this is built on here. A lot of that is Tucker’s legacy.”
Yates was a four-year contributor for the Bobcats, the final three seasons under Choate, where he tallied 87 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss and a pair of sacks in his final two seasons. Yates joined fellow defensive lineman Zach Wright in earning the MSU Joe Tiller defensive MVP award in 2017, as well as honorable mention all-Big Sky, as the Bobcats finished with a 5-6 record.
A household name among MSU fans last fall, Yates posted 46 tackles, 24 of them solo, with 8.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack, one forced fumble and another recovered, as well as four quarterback hurries. But he saved his greatest play for the biggest stage.
Leading rival Montana 29-25 in the final seconds and with UM snapping the ball at the MSU 1-yard line, Yates broke through the Grizzlies’ offensive line and popped UM running back Adam Eastwood, jarring the ball free. The Bobcats’ Derek Marks recovered the fumble as MSU won its third straight Cat-Griz contest.
“The play that will go down in the history here in the state of Montana with the stop on the 1-yard line in the (Cat-Griz football) game in Missoula,” beamed Choate, “(he was) a lead by example guy.”
Yates finished his MSU career with 125 total tackles, including 15.5 tackles-for-loss, while helping Montana State climb above .500 for the first time since 2014. The Bobcats finished 2018 with an 8-5 record, advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs after defeating Incarnate Word 35-14, the program’s first postseason win since 2012.
“I would agree (Yates will be successful in life beyond football). I think right now he would like to keep playing football somewhere, somehow. He went through our pro day, he’s continuing to train for wherever that takes him,” said Choate. “I know he still has a semester left of school to get his student-teaching done and I don’t think he’ll have any difficulty at all finding a teaching job if he wants to stay in the great state of Montana.
“His dad is an excellent coach over in Colstrip and (Tucker) has that coaching blood in him a little bit. He’s getting to graduate, not this semester, but hopefully next semester, get that education degree and go out into the world and see where that takes him. But I know in the short run he would like to go somewhere and continue to play football.”
Yates’ and Choate’s time on the football fields may have come to a close last fall, but as fate would have it, their time together rolls on in Bozeman.
“He’s kind of an old man now. I never see Tucker anywhere except the restaurants I go to eat with my wife. He’s always with his girlfriend and I have to tell him, ‘This is getting a little awkward now, Tuck.’ Now if I’m going into a restaurant, I look over my shoulder for the old man section, ‘Where’s Tucker?’” Choate laughed. “It’s good to see him grow. I know one of the things that was really important to him, Tyrone (Fa’anono) and Zach (Wright), those three guys that came in together as freshman and all went out together as seniors, was to go out as winners. The program struggled the first few years they were involved in it and all three of them wanted to leave it better than they found it, and they did. I think that’s awesome and that’s kind of the legacy Tucker and those other defensive linemen seniors left.”
Yates will represent Montana State as one of four male finalists for the Montana Amateur Athletic Union Little Sullivan Award next month. The 2019 Montana AAU Little Sullivan banquet will be held Saturday, May 4 at the Red Lion Hotel in Billings. Tickets to the event are available until May 1 and can be purchased by emailing email@example.com or by calling (406) 489-0251.
All current card-holding adult Montana AAU members, plus Montana media representatives, are eligible to vote for this year’s winners by emailing selections to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, April 22.
Montana AAU Little Sullivan Award 2019 finalists
— Choteau, MSU Billings basketball
Hailey Copinga — Billings Skyview, Rocky Mountain College volleyball
Makena Morley — Bigfork, University of Colorado cross country and track and field
Sydney Stites — Bozeman, Iowa State University softball
— Great Falls CMR, North Dakota State University baseball
Tres Tinkle — Missoula Hellgate, Oregon State basketball
Brandon Weber — Forsyth, MSU-Northern wrestling
Tucker Yates — Colstrip, Montana State University football