Montana State head coach Rob Ash was unsure if he would ever see Brad Daly in blue and gold again.
When Bo Beck first learned that his pupil, a former Helena Capital standout, intended to leave the program and the university after his freshman year — the direct result of immaturity and the struggle to adjust to the demands of life as a student-athlete— the Bobcats’ defensive line coach pleaded with the disenchanted teenager.
“I begged him and begged him to stay,” Beck recalled recently. “I was extremely disappointed, selfishly, because I wanted to see what this kid could do football-wise.”
Beck ultimately got that chance.
So did the rest of the country.
Daly emerged from a yearlong sabbatical spent toiling in the oil industry with all-important clarity and renewed focus. It translated into success in the classroom and on the gridiron in Bozeman, where the athletic 6-foot-1, 240-pound defensive end quickly developed into one of the most dominant and consistently disruptive forces in the FCS.
Ash and Beck deemed Daly’s senior campaign one of the greatest ever produced at Montana State. A panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries were clearly impressed, as well: They named Daly the 2013 Buck Buchanan Award winner at Monday evening’s 27th annual FCS Awards banquet in Philadelphia.
Daly is the sixth Big Sky player in the past 11 seasons and second consecutive Bobcat to receive the honor, joining former linemate Caleb Schreibeis.
“It’s awesome. It’s amazing that so many people thought that I played so well this season,” Daly said. “It’s an honor.”
Added Ash, “To be honest, I think it’s an incredible story. This is a guy who wasn’t really sure he wanted to be in college or playing football after one year. He went through some tough, soul-searching times and decided to come back and give it a try. … He’s a completely transformed person. Right now he’s an obviously fabulous player, but he’s a mature and polished young man.”
Daly, the third member of his family to be an MSU captain (father J. and brother Bobby), led the Big Sky in sacks as a walk-on during his sophomore year, and then received a second consecutive second-team All-Big Sky nod after a stellar junior season in which he started 12 of 13 games.
He was even better this fall — and is quick to give Schreibeis a sizable dose of the credit.
“(Winning this award) seemed so far out there until (Caleb) won it, and then I was like, ‘Dang, it’s a real possibility,’” Daly said. “I took it as that and then I learned from how he won it and how he prepared and how he treated every day. I tried to duplicate that.”
He didn’t duplicate Schreibeis’ program-record eight forced fumbles, but Daly excelled in virtually every statistical category in 2013. Despite being beset by a string of hip and back injuries, he led the classification in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (20 1/2).
He produced a total of 68 tackles, seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, two blocked kicks and intercepted a pass in a dramatic victory over Northern Colorado.
Daly kicked off his Buchanan candidacy with a sack and four tackles for loss in the season opener against Monmouth, and then sacked SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert twice in MSU’s one-point road loss to the FBS Mustangs on Sept. 7.
In Week 3, Daly overwhelmed Division II Colorado Mesa’s offensive front, generating four sacks as the Bobcats logged their lone shutout of the season.
“As he’s gotten bigger and bigger and stronger, he’s just gotten better at that spot — just a natural,” Ash remarked.
The Big Sky co-Defensive MVP continued to produce down the stretch, even as MSU’s postseason hopes were dashed because of a late-season swoon.
“I think it’s amazing that he was able to play all year; the last half of the season he was only able to practice one day a week,” Ash said. “Basically, it was just a survival to try to get from one game to the next, and I know he played in a lot of pain and it was difficult for him. I can’t even imagine what kind of success he would have had if he was healthy. It’s almost impossible to imagine what those numbers would’ve been; it would’ve been freakish. … He’s one of the most mentally tough guys I’ve ever seen.”
Added Daly, “I’m surprised with the production. … I had goals coming into the season and I shattered them all, and that’s awesome.”
Daly received 64 of 147 possible first-place votes and 485 points in the balloting.
Runner-up Stephon Robertson of James Madison garnered 43 first-place nods and 421 points, while Samford’s Justin Shade (213) finished a distant third. Montana linebacker Jordan Tripp (70) and Eastern Washington linebacker Ronnie Hamlin (66) wound up 10th and 12th.
Daly has cemented his place among a distinguished list of MSU defensive lineman, which includes Bill Kollar, who was MVP of the Senior Bowl in the early 1970s, and Mark Fellows, a key contributor on the 1984 national championship team. Corey Widmer and Dane Fletcher parlayed Big Sky Defensive MVP accolades in 1990 and 2009, respectively, into successful NFL careers.
Bobcats defensive lineman have garnered All-America status 23 times, including each of the past five seasons.
“I hope it affects the program very positively,” Daly said. “Showing that we can bring home an award like this more than one time, I think it will help bringing in guys who think that they have a really good opportunity to win an award like this.”
Jon Maletz can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2601. Follow him on Twitter @jmaletz.