Montana and Montana State are vastly different football programs, but one of their primary strategies is the same: recruit the state.
Each prides itself in putting out a competitive FCS product with local resources, often finding recruiting gems in the state’s most rural, population-thin areas.
Eastern Washington tight end Jayce Gilder – a product of Corvallis, Montana – never piqued their interest.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Gilder, whose fifth-ranked Eagles (3-1, 1-0 Big Sky) visit Montana State (3-1, 1-0) at noon on Saturday, is the rare Montana native who took his services to an out-of-state Big Sky Conference school.
Gilder’s father, Jeff, played basketball at Montana State before transferring to MSU-Northern. His grandfather played offensive line at Montana.
A multisport standout at Corvallis, a town of 997 residents 43 miles south of Missoula, Gilder, who quarterbacked the Blue Devils, hoped to continue his family’s lineage at one of the state’s two Division I schools.
He didn’t get as much as walk-on offer, he said.
“They didn’t really show much interest in me (as a tight end), which kind of hurt,” said Gilder, now EWU’s primary pass-catching tight end.
“They never talked to me or anything.”
His classmate, Jesse Sims, drew interest from Montana, where he starts at defensive end. Gilder generated interest from nearby NAIA schools, and eventually committed to Montana Tech.
But Gilder and his high school coach, Clayton Curley, still believed he had the qualities and athleticism to play in the Big Sky.
Curley would know. From 2001-2005, he played safety at Montana State. His cousin, Dan Curley, was a standout tight end at EWU who was taken in the fifth round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
“I knew what type of player Jayce was, and I knew (Montana and Montana State) were missing out,” Curley said. “I sent out film on him and got in touch with EWU’s tight ends coach.”
John Graham, now an assistant at Idaho, was the Eagles’ tight end coach at the time. After he came to watch Gilder play in a basketball game in early 2015 – Gilder exhibited his size and athleticism with dunks in warm-ups and 20 points in the game – Gilder was offered a preferred walk-on spot at EWU.
He passed up the scholarship from Montana Tech and proceeded to take advantage of his walk-on opportunity at EWU, a FCS postseason regular.
Gilder, who never caught a pass in high school, bulked up 20 pounds his redshirt season in 2015 and earned EWU’s offensive scout team player of the year. He later earned a scholarship.
He is just the 11th EWU letterman in program history recruited from Montana.
“I was just lucky and fortunate that Eastern gave me a call,” Gilder said. “I wasn’t getting any scholarship money at first, but I felt like I needed to take the chance and play at the highest level possible.”
EWU head coach Aaron Best said he’s glad Gilder took that chance.
“He thought his best fit was to come here, and we’re very happy that happened,” Best said. “Because he’s thrust himself into a role, not only as a blocker but as a pass catcher.”
Gilder hauled in his first collegiate touchdown pass in Bozeman in 2016 in 41-17 rout of the Bobcats. Since he arrived in Cheney, the Eagles have posted a 5-1 record against Montana schools.
“Playing these Montana schools definitely means a little more to me,” said Gilder, who has two touchdown receptions this season. “I get to play against my old teammates from the East-West Shrine game, and I get to play in front of friends and family.”
The Gilder family now wears red in lieu of maroon and navy blue, he said, but he still catches flack from his friends back home.
He’s been inundated with text messages this week from Montana State friends, offering some good-natured ribbing.
“I wear (EWU gear) with pride when I go back to Montana,” Gilder said. “I get some crap for it, but at the end of the day, we’re winning.”
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