“No disrespect to anyone, but at the high school level it’s difficult to not get distracted by all the other things going on,” Leighton said. “Those guys had the ability to keep working hard and improving on what they needed to get better. They stayed focused.”
That has helped Leighton adjust to what he said is the biggest difference between punting in high school and college — the speed.
“At Camas you never worried about punt pressure,” Leighton said. “At this level, whether they’re rushing or not, there’s always a fast player back to return the ball. There’s a bunch of dynamic players at every position. You’re so much more aware of timing.”
Even though kicking at Camas doesn’t match the pace of college, Hathaway always makes speed a priority.
“The stakes are high,” Hathaway said. “We stress the timing and how everything has to be fast. A lot of kickers can make a long kick, but can you do it in a timely manner?”
Leighton isn’t alone at Montana State when it comes to players who can handle pressure. The Bobcats (12-2) finished second in the Big Sky, earning the No. 8 playoff seed and a first-round bye.
Since then, Montana State has won three playoff games, each by no fewer than 14 points.
In North Dakota State (13-1), the Bobcats will face an FCS powerhouse that has won eight national titles since 2011.
“We’re all excited,” Leighton said. “We’re focused and prepared to play our best.”
Reimer steps up
Leighton isn’t the only Camas graduate to make an impact for Montana State. Offensive lineman Rush Reimer, who also capped his high school career with a Class 4A state championship in 2019, has stepped into a big role late in the season.
Reimer took over as the starting right tackle after starter TJ Session was injured Nov. 13 against Idaho.
That gave Reimer (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) his first collegiate start in the regular-season finale against rival Montana in front of nearly 27,000 hostile fans in Missoula.
“It was my first time being in that game, first time seeing the game, and it was wild for sure,” Reimer told 406MTSports. “It’s a whole different experience. I’ve never played a game anything like that.”
Appearing in 11 games, Reimer has helped the Bobcats consistently rely on the run. Montana State has averaged 275 rushing yards in three playoff games, more than the Bobcats’ Big Sky-leading 225 yards per game in the regular season.
“I think he’s got the jitter part out of the way, and so he can just go play football and focus on being a good football player,” Montana State offensive line coach Brian Armstrong told 406MTSports. “I do think he’s going to be a really, really good player here before it’s said and done.”