R.J. Fitzgerald was willing to put in extra work.
While recovering from an injury last season, the Montana State fullback went through all the rehabilitation work he could. Simultaneously, he provided his teammates emotional support. Battling through his own problems, he wanted to set an example.
He didn’t play much last season. But he earned a role in MSU’s run-heavy offense and now is clearing the way for the plethora of running backs the Bobcats have turned to.
Fitzgerald, a 5-foot-10, 225-pound sophomore from Dillon, has provided key blocking for the No. 6-ranked Bobcats, who lead the Big Sky with 264.7 rushing yards per game.
His individual contributions often don’t show up statistically except for a few special teams tackles. But MSU head coach Jeff Choate knows his value.
“That guy takes so much pride in any job you give him. He’s going to execute at a high level,” Choate said. “He’s like a gnat. You just can’t get him off you. He just drives (defenses) crazy because he’s so relentless.”
When asked about his role on the team or how he sees the evolution of his position, Fitzgerald’s answers were similar. Whatever is asked of him, he’s happy to contribute.
His position suits him. Growing up, he loved the physicality and competitiveness of sports. His father, Greg, and uncle, John, played football at Montana. His grandfather, Jon Konen, played at Montana Western. His sister, Brynley, played for the MSU women’s basketball team last season before transferring to play at Western. And he said his mom, Keeley, is perhaps the most competitive member of the family.
Fitzgerald learned the value of hard work from them.
“It doesn’t matter what the job is, how tough it is, you’ve just got to do your job and get it done to the best of your ability,” he said. “You don’t stop until the job gets done.”
And Fitzgerald was successful at Beaverhead County, where he went to high school with fellow Bobcats Troy Andersen and Kyle Finch. Fitzgerald won two Class A championships and was a two-time all-state linebacker and an all-conference fullback.
He also helped Beaverhead County win a state basketball championship and was an all-state American Legion baseball catcher.
“I’ve never really been one that has been finesse in anything I’ve done. Just ask my basketball coaches about that one,” Fitzgerald said with a smile. “I wasn’t too much of a finesse player. Probably hurt me a little bit there. It’s just something, growing up, I’ve been taught to do.”
Fitzgerald played in six games as a true freshman in 2017 while contributing on special teams. He played the first four games of 2018, but his injury kept him out the rest of the year which led him to redshirting.
In his first two seasons, he’s felt his most difficult adjustment is the speed of college football. He admitted a tough part is refining the vision necessary to identify running lanes so he can lead ball carriers to space up field.
But that all came with film study. He started paying attention to defensive action before the snap and what that indicates he needs to do. He understands defensive fronts and what kinds of blitzes or safety and linebacker rotations mean for his responsibilities.
By remaining dedicated to what was asked of him, the Bobcats have asked Fitzgerald to do more. He’s now playing roughly 45-50 snaps a game between special teams and offense.
The Bobcats can depend on Fitzgerald to find space for whoever has the ball. MSU is first in the conference with 20 rushing touchdowns and 5.8 yards per carry.
“He’s been a relentless blocker for us,” Choate said. “He’s playing a significant role for us on our team. He’s also, I think, one of our emotional leaders. Very much a quiet leader in some respects. But on game day, he brings that emotion and always has great energy.”
When the Bobcats were in overtime at Cal Poly, Fitzgerald was on the field. He sealed off the Mustangs defensive end from Travis Jonsen, who caught a direct snap and bolted for a game-winning touchdown.
He ran toward the end zone in celebration just like the rest of his teammates. To him, it doesn’t matter if the Bobcats throw or run 70 times a game. To him, he’s simply going to take care of his job.
“I just do whatever’s asked of me. So if they ask me to block every single play, I’ll block as hard as I can,” Fitzgerald said. “If they ask me to go catch the ball, I’ll try to catch the ball. I’ll just continue to do whatever they ask of me.”