(Editor's note: This is the sixth of eight features highlighting the careers of the 2020 Little Sullivan Award finalists. Links to the other stories can be found at the bottom of this article.)
DILLON -- Ryan Nourse always knew there was something special about Jason Ferris.
A multi-sport star at Dillon's Beaverhead County High School, Ferris didn't draw a ton of attention from college coaches, particularly at the NCAA Division I level. Nourse, however, had an advantage many of those other coaches didn't: He lived in Dillon and watched Ferris practice, play and compete on countless occasions. Almost instantly, he was hooked.
“He was always there. I felt watching him all those years that he was one of the top players in the state and would be a great linebacker. But again, he was skinny. There are parameters out there when you talk about Big Sky Conference coaches and who they take, what they do," said Nourse. "When you’re a long, tall, skinny guy, sometimes guys look past that, because there are those parameters where coaches say, ‘You need to have a certain X-factor in terms of weight, height and that.’ We do the same thing, too, to an extent, but probably at less of a clip. I just felt his competitiveness and who he was, plus his work ethic, were going to put him into another level."
After helping the Beavers to three consecutive Class A football state championship appearances, winning in 2013 and 2014, plus consecutive runner-up finishes in basketball, Ferris was recruited to Montana Western by then-coach B.J. Robertson. When Robertson left for an assistant position at Montana State later that winter, Nourse returned to the sideline as head coach, a position he had held from 2011-13 before becoming Montana Western's director of athletics.
His first order of business? Recruiting the help of Ferris and other homegrown athletes to rejuvenate the program.
“One of the things when I got here 10 years ago, I just wanted to get everybody to really love the Bulldogs again. ... Getting guys from Dillon like that, like Jason, plus the other guys we’ve had, doing the things we’ve done in the community, people have really attached to our guys and the program, the support we get here is incredible and second to none," said Nourse. "That’s not just on Jason alone, but to be able to have guys that want to stay here and that can produce at that high of a level, it makes a great impact.”
Ferris quickly made his own impact on the field, playing in every Bulldog game during his career.
As a redshirt freshman, he tallied 85 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, a pair of interceptions and a defensive touchdown. His numbers increased the following fall -- 92 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and eight pass breakups. His 8.4 tackles per game ranked 32nd in the NAIA and put him on the radar as one of the top defenders in the nation entering his junior season.
A team captain, Ferris dazzled in the 2018 season, leading the team with 125 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, 12 pass breakups and three interceptions. He finished third in the nation with 12.5 tackles per game, was deemed Frontier Conference defensive player of the year and was given a slew of honors from across the country: NAIA first-team all-American; American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) first-team all-American; Associated Press first-team all-American and a finalist for the prestigious Cliff Harris Award, which is given to the small college defensive player of the year.
"Jason is, some would call him stubborn, overly competitive, whatever it is. When I took back over, we butted heads a little bit," said Nourse. "He is a strong-willed guy, I like to equate it to, ‘Those are the guys I like to coach. It’s way easier to pull a guy back than it is to kick them forward.’ That was the one thing I always appreciated about Jason — strong players with strong leadership skills and personalities, you don't always have to agree, but you can come to consensus."
Ferris repeated his all-American honors last fall, totaling 119 tackles. He finished his Bulldog career with 421 tackles, 207 of those unassisted, 7.5 sacks, 43.5 tackles-for-loss, 30 pass breakups, seven interceptions and a pair of defensive touchdowns.
Those numbers and accolades led to pro scouts calling, and Nourse still remembers the conversations about his star linebacker.
"The only thing I could tell the scouts and folks who would talk to me about Jason was, ‘He’s every bit as fast as you think he is.’ He was so much faster than some of the guys. It’s not just his physical speed, his processing speed mentally, he would be places too fast sometimes," said Nourse. "Off the field, hungry, driven and competitive. He just got better as he got older. He always bought into the team and that, but as he got older and more mature he bought into the nutrition side of it, the rest side of it, the things he had to do. He got bigger, he got stronger, he got better. Hungry, driven and competitive, if you can have a bunch of guys like that, you’re going to win games.”
The Carolina Panthers agreed, signing Ferris to a three-year contract at the conclusion of the 2020 NFL Draft. The team gave him jersey No. 45 in late May, and he joins a franchise that made history by using each of its draft picks on defensive players as coach Matt Rhule and the staff look to overhaul the team that ranked near the bottom of the league in many defensive categories last fall.
Nourse believes Ferris can contribute to that turnaround -- in the film room, on the practice field, on Sundays -- and is confident he'll do everything within his control to earn that shot.
“One of the mantras of our program is, ‘Bulldogs always fight.’ He’ll go down swinging, he’ll give every single thing that he has," Nourse said. "In the past, we’ve had some guys here, talent, scouts have come through, and they had good testing numbers, but they didn’t take the steps that Jason took to go and train, to invest in themselves, to sacrifice some of the other things you can get right away.
"When you were a kid you wanted to play in the NFL or you wanted to play in the NBA or that, and his attitude has been from the get-go, ‘I have one shot, man,’ and I know he is going to, like he always has, he’ll fight until the end to see where he can end up. You sometimes only get one chance, and this is it, so he’ll roll with it.”
And through it all, more than 2,200 miles away in Dillon, Nourse will be smiling, appreciating the opportunity he had to coach Ferris, and sitting in front of the TV on Sundays hoping to see No. 45 show the rest of the country what he already knows.
"We wanted the best for the Bulldogs, we were always going to do our best on the field and we got to win a lot of games together. It was pretty incredible," he reminisced. "I’ve already bought my (Carolina) Panthers hat, so I’m ready to go.”
Little Sullivan 2020 finalists: Dane Warp, Carroll College basketball; Paige Harris, North Dakota State University track and field; McKenzie Johnston, Montana Lady Griz basketball; Tres Tinkle, Oregon State basketball; Catherine Russo, Butte swimming.