BOZEMAN — From underrated to highly favored, Montana State's offensive line has a different narrative going into this season compared to last.
The Bobcats are looking to build on their dominance from 2022, which produced one of the best running games in the country at 312.6 yards per game and 45 rushing touchdowns.
“Last year looking at it, we had no one but myself returning," Bobcats center Justus Perkins said. "There was all that thought we weren’t going to be anything, and now here we are with all the experience coming back, but it doesn’t deter us or add anything. We’re going to keep working.”
The Bobcats' offensive line is under new leadership with Al Johnson as position coach. He brings an outstanding pedigree to the team.
Johnson himself was a three-year starting center at Wisconsin, earning Second Team All-Big Ten and third-team All-America honors as a senior in 2002. He then spent multiple years in the NFL and then transitioned to coaching. Last season, he returned to his alma mater to coach the Badgers running backs.
This season he takes over one of the most productive offensive lines in the FCS and is challenged in raising their already elite level.
“They’ve come a long way in the last year, and I’ve got to keep them motivated to keep working on things every day," Johnson said. "To not take anything for granted and to try and stay consistent. That’s the big thing I try and hit them with. If we can do it on one play, you got to do it on every play.”
His players have already bought into the culture he’s building. They understand that this year is new, and in order to maintain the high level of play they have to stay dialed in every day.
“I think we just have to go out and work," Bobcats offensive tackle Marcus Wehr said. "We know what it takes to win and keep that standard high enough to where, you know, we’re the driving force of this team.”
Coach Brent Vigen sees that Johnson has already elevated the program and position group.
“Coach Johnson’s I think taken them to another level," Vigen said. "I think the communication factor, and their willingness to communicate, I think they’re figuring that piece out, because rarely do you get four guys straight rushing. You’re going to get twists, and you’re going to get pressures and those types of things. Communicating those movements is really important.”
Johnson hails from the place that’s nicknamed 'RBU' and has a past of coaching running backs, so he clearly enjoys the run game.
But he also knows how important throwing the ball is and reflects Vigen’s mindset on being able to adapt to the different pressures from opponents.
“I love the mindset," Johnson explained. "I’m from Wisconsin, I think you have to run it to win. I think you have to stop the run to win on defense, and so, I’m 100% about that, and the physicality that it takes to run the ball. But if we want to get to where we want to get to and accomplish what we have to, even the best running team in the country, at times, they had to throw it to win it.”
He's in charge of a group that knows how to put in the hard work in every aspect of their careers.
“We’re a hardworking bunch," Perkins said. "We love to push each other. You know, if that’s in the weight room, if that’s in the film room, even in the classroom, you know. (We're) obviously working to continue to improve our game to up our echelon as an offensive line.”
They're dialed in each and every day to live up to the expectations.