The NFL prospect who can play anywhere

·14 min read

The NFL draft’s most intriguing linebacker prospect hasn’t always been content just blowing up running plays in the backfield or blanketing slot receivers over the middle.

Troy Andersen often sidled up to former Montana State offensive coordinator Matt Miller during games to lobby to be part of the offensive game plan.

“I’m here if you need me,” Andersen would tell Miller.

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In Andersen’s four brilliant seasons at Montana State, the Bobcats frequently took him up on his eagerness to do more. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound son of Montana cattle ranchers played an array of positions on both sides of the ball and shined wherever he lined up.

Dabbling at running back as a freshman, Andersen emerged as a breakaway threat whenever he touched the ball. He started 11 games at quarterback for Montana State the following year, mostly bludgeoning opposing defenses on the ground yet also displaying enough arm strength to occasionally connect with receivers deep via play-action.

When Andersen primarily returned to his preferred linebacker position as an upperclassman, he saw the field through the lens of a quarterback. He could often detect what formation the offense was in and assess where the opposing quarterback might see an advantage. Then he’d unleash his physical tools and try to break up the play.

Andersen’s rare versatility attracted the attention of NFL scouts, but it was his eye-catching performance at the NFL combine earlier this spring that cemented him as a potential second- or third-round draft pick. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds, the fastest time recorded by any linebacker at this year’s combine and, according to NextGen Stats, the fifth-fastest by any player weighing at least 240 pounds since 2003.

That blazing 40-yard dash silenced any doubts about whether Andersen has the natural ability to make the leap from the Big Sky Conference to the NFL. So did the rest of Andersen’s testing results, which were also elite across the board.

Now the conversation about the NFL draft’s most versatile player has shifted.

If, in his first year focusing exclusively on middle linebacker, he blossomed into a unanimous FCS first-team All-American, how good could he become with more development and experience? And might a creative NFL team also be able to turn Andersen into a weapon on the offensive side of the ball?

“A lot of guys are not too far from what they’re going to become when they get drafted,” Montana State football coach Brent Vigen told Yahoo Sports. “Troy still has a ways to go, and that’s the exciting part with him. NFL teams see an unfinished product but also a person who has all this athleticism, character and intelligence. I’m sure they think that two or three years down the road, they could have something pretty special.”

A lot of NFL draft prospects come into the league within shouting distance of their ceiling as a player. Troy Andersen may not be anywhere near his. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
A lot of NFL draft prospects come into the league within shouting distance of their ceiling as a player. Troy Andersen may not be anywhere near his. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Ranch life

In the southwest corner of Montana is a county that’s as large as the state of Connecticut yet is home to fewer than 10,000 people. Here, amid the snow-capped mountains, endless grasslands and trout-filled rivers, is where Troy Andersen grew up.

For years, Scott and Nicole Andersen and their two kids lived on their sprawling cattle ranch in a five-level farmhouse built in the 1890s. Only after the Andersens grew sick of heating their home with a wood stove did they tear it down and build a new one right next to it.

Growing up on a ranch meant that Troy and his older sister took on ranch hand responsibilities from an early age. In the summer and fall, Troy and Holly would cut and rake hay, fix fences, spray for weeds and irrigate the land. When the temperatures plummeted, their priorities turned to helping search for newborn calves in the middle of the night and pulling them out of the cold to keep them from freezing to death.

Those tasks sometimes became “monotonous,” Troy admits, but they also helped shape him in ways that he didn’t fully understand until later.

“I do think it gave me a greater than normal work ethic,” he said. “My parents worked extremely hard and I think it rubbed off onto my sister and I to push ourselves in everything we did.”

The discipline and drive that Andersen’s parents instilled in him on the ranch undeniably spilled over into his schoolwork and athletic pursuits. He graduated from Beaverhead County High School as the 2017 class valedictorian … while also leading his school to state championships in football, basketball and track and field.

While the long, rangy Andersen entered high school playing receiver, he didn’t remain at that position for long. Beaverhead County coach Rick Nordahl began grooming Andersen to be the varsity quarterback after he flashed a strong arm and breakaway speed while practicing with the froshmore team.

“When you grow up in a small town, you want the ball in the hands of your best athlete,” said current Beaverhead County coach Zach McCrae, an unofficial assistant coach at the time.

Andersen also played safety for Beaverhead County’s defense, a position that allowed him to showcase his chase-down speed, his knack for delivering a jarring hit and even his uncommon intelligence. In some games, Andersen would recognize the formation the opposing offense was in from game film he’d watched and he’d shout to his teammates, “Watch the speed option that way!” or “Watch draw!”

“It was just demoralizing to the other team,” Nordahl said. “I remember they’d run to the sideline saying, ‘Hey coach, they know what we're running.’ ”

Former Beaverhead County track and field coach Tammi Myers admits she was skeptical when friends began telling her about a boy in the area with sprinter’s speed. Then she watched Andersen play football for the first time and came away amazed by how easily he’d chase down an opposing ball carrier or leave defenders behind.

“Oh my God!’” Myers recalled thinking. “This kid is the real deal!”

It didn’t take long for Andersen to confirm Myers’ suspicions. In spite of his rudimentary hurdling form, he finished second in the 110 hurdles at the Montana state meet as a sophomore. Then he won state titles in both short sprints the next two years, running sub-11-second times in the 100 that are rare for top sprinters in Montana.

With Beaverhead County vying for a second straight state title in 2017, Andersen volunteered to pick up a new event. He finished sixth in the state in the shot put despite throwing it for the first time only a few weeks earlier.

Andersen had the natural ability to pursue basketball or track in college, but he didn’t love either of those sports the way he did football. Myers was reminded of that one day at track practice when Andersen was supposed to be practicing baton exchanges but he kept glancing across the field to where his receivers were running routes.

“Pretty soon I look around and I’m like where the hell is Troy?” Myers said.

“He’s over there throwing with his receivers,” her husband replied.

“I literally had to grab him by the hand and drag him back to do the two exchanges he had to do,” Myers said with a laugh.

So there was no doubt that Andersen intended to play football in college. The only question was at what level.

Troy Andersen played everywhere in high school, including quarterback. (Courtesy of Scott Andersen)
Troy Andersen played everywhere in high school, including quarterback. (Courtesy of Scott Andersen)

Tepid college recruitment

Only a few weeks after he became Montana State’s new football coach in December 2015, Jeff Choate drove two hours to Andersen’s high school to watch him play basketball. Choate had to see in person the high school junior that some of his assistants described as his top in-state recruiting priority.

Early in the game, Andersen skied above everyone else to grab a rebound. Moments later, he outran the rest of the players down court to finish a fast break.

“I looked at one of my assistants like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Choate said. “It was not hard to see his exceptional athleticism.”

Montana State offered Andersen a scholarship the spring of his junior year after Choate invited him to a football camp and confirmed what he’d witnessed on the basketball floor. Then the Bobcats waited nervously and hoped that no higher-level, out-of-state programs would stumble across Andersen and fall in love.

A conga line of Division I coaches might have paraded through Andersen’s living room if he grew up in a football hotbed, but his family’s cattle ranch is hundreds of miles from the nearest FBS program. A Boise State coach had to commit to driving more than five hours each way to see him play in person. Same with coaches from Wyoming, Utah or BYU.

It also didn’t help that Andersen turned down his parents’ offers to take him to showcase camps in other states. Humble to a fault, Andersen didn’t like the idea of trumpeting his own talent and he wasn’t sure he was good enough to play in the Pac-12 or Mountain West anyway.

When Andersen’s high school coaches sent his Hudl film to contacts at FBS programs, it often elicited a tepid response. Many college coaches watched him tear through Montana high school defenses as a dual-threat quarterback and questioned if he could do the same against stronger competition.

“It was mind boggling to me,” Nordahl said. “We thought he’d be a great strong safety or outside linebacker, but they were worried about the amount of time they were going to have to spend developing him.”

The biggest scare for Montana State came when Utah invited Andersen to a camp the summer before his senior year. Andersen registered for the camp as a receiver and displayed his speed and athleticism, but the Utes ultimately only wanted him as a preferred walk-on.

When no FBS programs offered scholarships, Andersen committed to Montana State over rival Montana. At the time Choate envisioned Andersen as a strong safety. Little did either of them know, he would initially contribute more on the other side of the ball.

Playing offense, defense and special teams

Only a few days before the start of Andersen’s first fall camp, Choate approached his prized freshman with an unexpected question. With Montana State’s starting halfback serving a four-game suspension for an offseason DUI, Choate wondered if Andersen would be willing to switch to running back to fill the void.

“I had never played it before but I was willing to do whatever the coaches wanted,” Andersen recalled. “If they thought I could be good at running back, I was willing to give it a shot.”

Andersen filled in so capably at running back that Choate kept feeding him the ball even after starter Nick LaSane returned from suspension. The Big Sky Conference freshman of the year piled up 515 rushing yards and five touchdowns while also starting games at linebacker and making an impact on special teams.

Choate intended to use Andersen primarily on defense the following season until, once again, plans abruptly changed over the summer. When academic issues sidelined Montana State’s starting quarterback for the 2018 season, Choate considered two options: Elevating one of two true freshmen before they were ready or seeing if Andersen could duplicate his high school quarterbacking success at the college level.

In the end, Choate trusted Andersen more.

“Our best player is Troy Andersen,” he told his staff. “Let’s just revamp some stuff on offense and make him our quarterback.”

Eager to do whatever it took to help his team win, Andersen thrived in an overhauled system that highlighted his explosiveness and physicality as a rusher and his ability to occasionally catch a defense off guard with a play-action pass. He ran for at least 94 yards in 10 of his 11 starts, piled up a school record 21 rushing touchdowns and earned first-team All-Big Sky honors.

In a victory at Portland State, Andersen rushed for more than 200 yards, threw for more than 100 and even caught a 32-yard pass. Later that season, he dragged Montana State out of a 22-point hole at rival Montana, decimating the Grizzlies with both his arm and his legs while also playing situationally on defense.

“It was almost Paul Bunyan stuff with him,” Choate said.

Playing quarterback turned out to be pretty fun for Andersen because it enabled him to directly impact the game on every offensive snap. And yet Andersen still loved defense more because the mindset and physicality suited him and because reacting to what the offense does was less rigid than merely executing a play.

Choate gave Andersen the best of both worlds as a junior, mainly using him at outside linebacker yet also giving him 49 carries as a wildcat quarterback. Andersen earned all-Big Sky and all-American honors again, accumulating 54 tackles and 6.5 sacks at linebacker while also scoring a team-high seven offensive touchdowns.

“There were games when he’d take snaps at quarterback, running back and linebacker,” Miller recalled, “and he’d still tell us, ‘I can handle more.’”

While Andersen may have desired an even greater workload, his body sent a message that he was stretching himself too thin. In November 2019, he suffered a right knee injury that required offseason surgery and would have forced him to redshirt in 2020 had COVID-19 not wiped out the season.

If the knee injury contributed to Andersen playing almost exclusively defense as a senior, then it was probably a blessing in disguise. Because it was actually when Andersen got a chance to do less that he produced his best collegiate season and solidified himself as an NFL prospect.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 05: Troy Andersen #LB02 of the Montana State Bobcats runs a drill during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 05, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Troy Andersen of the Montana State Bobcats runs a drill during the NFL Combine. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Andersen’s NFL prospects

When Brent Vigen took over as Montana State’s new head coach in February 2021, he quickly made a bold decision. With Andersen still rehabbing from his knee injury and learning a new defensive system, Vigen committed to playing the fifth-year senior only at middle linebacker.

Focusing on one position for the first time in his college career, Andersen blossomed into maybe the nation’s best FCS defensive player. The unanimous first-team all-American led Montana State to its first appearance in the FCS national title game since 1984, tallying 147 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and seven pass breakups.

Right away last season, Andersen displayed sideline-to-sideline range, a knack for disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage and a motor that seemingly never turned off. As he grew more comfortable at middle linebacker, he also showed flashes of impressive coverage skills and improved feel for the position.

Andersen’s promising debut season at middle linebacker raises an obvious question: Has he benefited from being a swiss army knife? Or might he be a more polished draft prospect today if he had stuck with one position?

To Andersen, the answer is clear. He says he doesn’t regret any of the position changes because they helped him learn to “anticipate plays and schemes based on formation and offensive tendencies.”

“It obviously would have helped me become a more refined linebacker if I had played it exclusively,” Andersen says, “but I believe I have become a better athlete and a person through it all.”

How will Andersen fit in the NFL? Right now, there’s no consensus, aside from that he can make an instant impact on special teams. Some say he profiles best as a raw but athletically gifted linebacker who may require a couple years of development to reach his full potential. Other NFL teams have told Choate they envision Andersen as a tight end, an edge rusher or even a wildcat quarterback.

“I think the beauty is going to be in the eye of the beholder,” Choate said.

Wherever Andersen lands, whatever position he plays, those close to him are confident he’ll make his upside reality. That’s all they know from a son of Montana cattle ranchers whose physical gifts, work ethic and humility have taken him to unimaginable heights.

“I’m biased, but we’ve never seen him not excel at anything he puts his mind to,” Scott Andersen said. “He never ceases to amaze me.”