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When Justin Herbert made his NFL debut, his former high school teammate was stuck in limbo, wondering if he’d get to play a 2020-21 season.

Montana State ultimately didn’t play in the fall of 2020 or in the spring of 2021, relegating players like defensive lineman Kyle Rygg to limited practices and workouts filled with masks and social distancing. Rygg not only watched anonymous players enjoy games last season, he watched his former teammate, Herbert, put together one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history.

“I think the worst part for everyone was just, you’re practicing so much without a game at the end of the line,” Rygg said earlier this month. “You don’t have something to look forward to.”

Rygg was a year behind Herbert at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Oregon. Herbert starred for the Oregon Ducks from 2017 to 2019 and was drafted sixth overall by the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2020 NFL draft. Rygg, meanwhile, redshirted in 2017, barely played in 2018, appeared in eight games as a reserve in 2019 and was robbed of a 2020 season by the coronavirus pandemic.

If not for the canceled season, Rygg might have timed his college breakout perfectly with Herbert’s professional one. Now, just days before MSU’s season opener at Wyoming, Rygg is in line to start at defensive tackle. The redshirt junior is eager to play.

“He’s kind of waited his turn here, and I think, with a couple years left, he’s ready to take advantage of the opportunity,” MSU first-year head coach Brent Vigen said Tuesday. “He’s going to have to be a guy who we’ll really lean on.”

Rygg was not at all surprised that Herbert passed for 4,336 yards with 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a completion percentage of 66.6% last year.

“It was just like, ‘Oh, there he goes,’” Rygg said with a laugh. “He’s always been good at everything. He got to Oregon and was outstanding there and then got to the NFL and he’s doing the same thing. It’s just pretty cool to watch (after) growing up with him.”

“Obviously, he’s really gifted,” Rygg added. “He’s a super smart guy, which I think is the thing that separates him from a lot of people. He’s such a smart player, and I guarantee you the way he prepares is a great reflection of how good he is on the field.”

Intelligence is not mutually exclusive.

Rygg could have stayed close to home at Portland State or played at fellow Big Sky schools Idaho and Northern Arizona. All three offered him full scholarships, while he received a partial one from MSU, according to former Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate. But Rygg earned a 75% academic scholarship from MSU, and that’s the Big Sky school he chose.

Rygg wasn’t touted enough as a recruit to reasonably expect playing time at an FBS school like Oregon. But he might’ve turned down his hometown college even if it offered him a full scholarship simply because Oregon doesn’t have an engineering program. MSU does, which is one of the main reasons he ended up in Bozeman. He’s a chemical engineering major.

“It obviously would have been cool (to go to Oregon), but I was realistic with myself, and I came out here and kind of fell in love with MSU,” Rygg said. “The football program plus engineering program, it’s kind of the perfect combo for what I was looking for.”

Another factor in Rygg’s decision was Herbert’s brother, Mitch, an all-Big Sky receiver for the Bobcats who’s now in medical school. Rygg found out about MSU from Mitch, also a Sheldon graduate who was a senior with the Bobcats when Rygg redshirted. Mitch hosted Rygg on his official visit to MSU, which Rygg first looked at from an academic standpoint, he said.

“He came here and had a lot of success and had good things to say about the place,” Rygg said of Mitch. “When football came into the equation, it was kind of the perfect opportunity.”

Vigen praised not only Rygg’s size (6-foot-5, 275 pounds) and strength but his athleticism and skill. He expects Rygg to be a good complement to starting nose tackle Chase Benson.

“Kyle is a great guy,” MSU senior defensive end Daniel Hardy told the Chronicle. “A force in the middle.”

The Bobcats also have a track record of strong defensive lines with recent players such as Derek Marks, Bryce Sterk, Zach Wright and Tucker Yates. Rygg knows he’s the least experienced defensive line starter with legacies he’d like to uphold, but he feels more excitement than pressure, he said.

Some of those positive feelings stem from MSU’s new defensive scheme. For linemen, the Bobcats’ 3-4 front under Choate was more “read-oriented” and “gap-canceling” than the current 4-2-5 look, Vigen said.

“I have some more freedom in the pass rush,” Rygg said. “We already have two great edge rushers with Daniel and Amandre (Williams), and on the inside Chase is a good pass rusher, so I’m just hoping to add to that.”

Rygg was one of many D-linemen who missed time in the spring. The cause of his absence was COVID-19 contact tracing, plus he dealt with a minor injury, Vigen said. After years of sitting on the bench and a pandemic-canceled season, the last thing Rygg wanted was more time away from the field.

Rygg returned by the end of spring practice, and he’s been a steady presence so far at fall camp. His breakout chance will begin in less than two weeks, and he doesn’t think the footsteps he’s following are too big.

“Nothing is ever guaranteed. I’m just trying to prove myself every single day and never take any day off in the film room,” he said. “Everybody is ready to just finally get their shot and take all this time to learn and watch and get some experience. Now, it’s finally our chance.”

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

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