MSU Askelson

Nolan Askelson totaled four tackles in his first career start at Texas Tech last week.

Nolan Askelson wouldn’t miss out on his chance.

He stayed late in the weight room to fit in extra lifts and drills. During hot summer days, he sprinted outside to build stamina.

The work never bothered him. Not in the slightest.

Askelson saw a chance to battle for Montana State’s starting middle linebacker spot during fall camp and seized it. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound redshirt freshman skyrocketed up the depth chart because of that offseason training and made his first career start at Texas Tech.

He’s on top of the depth chart again this week for No. 13 MSU’s Gold Rush game against No. 12 Southeast Missouri at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.

“Just doing what you’ve got to do to be great,” he said of his summer. “This is what I love to do. It’s a lot more fun when you go out there and win on Saturdays and you play good.

“That’s what it’s going to take. My mindset is this is making me better, and that’s all I’m going to do.”

MSU head coach Jeff Choate didn’t know how to gauge Askelson’s role coming off his redshirt season. He only played in four games in 2018, but Choate noticed Askelson flash potential on special teams including when he blocked a punt which led to a touchdown against Incarnate Word in the first round of the FCS playoffs.

The coaching staff anticipated Askelson could make an impact then and included him in the competition for a starting linebacker spot. Askelson, who was near the bottom of the depth chart last season, realized he had an opportunity.

Coming off a winning playoff season, Askelson believed in his team’s potential. He wanted to do everything he could this summer to be a part of it.

He saw Callahan O’Reilly, who played in 10 games last season, “busting his ass” so Askelson knew he needed to do the same. The two drove each other, both wanting to be the one who worked the most.

On top of weight lifting, Askelson tried to improve his speed and footwork by diligently working through bag and ladder drills. And he finished every workout with 100-yard sprints.

“This is a team that’s going to be able to win a lot of games,” Askelson thought to himself. “Do you want to be somebody who’s sitting on the sideline watching that or do you want to be out there doing that?”

Choate noticed and said Askelson’s work ethic during the summer was “unbelievable.” But with Troy Andersen moving to strong-side linebacker, only two linebacker spots remained. And he was up against O’Reilly, Josh Hill, Chad Kanow, Walker Cozzie and Michael Jobman, all contributors last season.

“I’m looking for aggressive, physical, fast players but smart football players,” MSU linebackers coach Bobby Daly said. “I think that’s what separates because we have a lot of physical, fast guys. Now who’s the smartest guy I can trust and put out there and know they’re going to be in the right spot?”

As the fall progressed, Askelson displayed dependability and began practicing with the starters. Though it was what he worked for, Askelson felt nervous. Now he was dealing with team captains like Brayden Konkol screaming calls at him, ensuring no errors were made in any way.

“If you make a mistake, is this my only opportunity?” Askelson remembered thinking. “But I feel like the coaches really believed in me and gave me a chance and let me learn from experiences, and I think that helped a lot.”

Askelson showed he was capable of manning the middle when he worked with the starters during the team’s public scrimmage. The more chances he has to play with the starters, the more he’s felt comfortable.

“I think it was his summer that put him in that position. He was committed to being excellent,” Choate said. “I think it just came down to a little bit more productivity for Nolan throughout the course of fall camp.”

This time last season, Askelson was learning the playbook and watching as much film as possible. With a better grasp of his responsibilities, he can play faster and more confidently.

He recognizes the test ahead of him every time he steps on the field. But this is exactly what Askelson wanted.

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.