Garrett Kocab has made one trip to Pittsburgh. He hopes to make it two.
The old saying is if you have talent, the NFL will find you. The league has found Kocab. His school is off the map, NAIA’s Carroll College in Montana, but scouts search far and wide for future talent. Kocab, a star nose tackle at his school, might not be in the position today if it wasn’t for one person. His mother. Almost literally pulling him by the ear, she dragged him onto the football field when he was seven years old after Kocab had signed up for the football team and then attempted to back out.
“She was like, ‘you’re playing,'” he tells me in an interview earlier this week.
After one practice, Kocab was hooked. He fell in love with football.
“Once we started tackling, that’s when I liked it.”
It took time for coaches to find his best fit. First he played running back. Then center. That was followed by tight end and linebacker. It wasn’t until junior high that he settled in on playing in the trenches.
While Kocab was born in California and played his college ball in Montana, he has big-time Pittsburgh ties. His dad was born in Sewickley, living there until high school, and his great grandfather had a house in Dubois. Today, he still has some uncles and cousins who call Western PA home. To date, Kocab’s made one trip to the Burgh.
“I got to go after my freshman year of high school. We drove from California all the way to Pittsburgh. We went to the Steelers’ stadium.”
And you better believe he was waving a Terrible Towel every weekend. A big-time Steelers’ fan, he, like everyone else, loved Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, and Hines Ward. But he also loved watched Brett Keisel make plays, a defensive lineman who had a similar path, a late round pick from out west who made it in the league.
Out of high school, Kocab could’ve gone to a bigger college. The Mountain West showed interest. He spoke with Boise State. Sacramento State also recruited him. But Carroll College was the right fit. He loved Montana, visiting there as a kid, and crucially, the school would let him be a dual-sport athlete. Kocab didn’t just play football. He’s a track and field star, dominating in discus and shot put, and Carroll, unlike those other schools, allowed him to do both.
“Right now, I’m ranked first in the nation in the disc.”
Though it’s a far cry from putting on the pads and hitting people, that track background has a correlation with football. Being explosive. Being flexible. Needing perfect technique to beat your competition.
“Throwing, it’s all explosiveness. I’m basically turning on my left leg and exploding as fast as I can through the ring. That’s just like getting off the ball…you wanna be as explosive as possible and you use your hips a lot in football so you’ve got that hip power.”
On the football field, Kocab was a hard man to block. He commanded double, sometimes triple, teams and still found a way to stuff the stat sheet. In 2022, he racked up 58 tackles, nine for a loss, with 3.5 sacks, and three pass deflections. With centers and guards trying to beat him up all day, Kocab looks at it like a math problem. Take on one at a time until there’s no one left to block you.
“You can’t fight them all at the same time. You gotta beat the first, beat the one guy at a time…for me, it was a lot of power, using that power to get vertical. If I can’t get the sack, at least put some pressure on or something.”
Though Carroll College may be tiny, their defense was advanced. One that showed multiple looks, ran a ton of stunts that asked Kocab to loop and slant, and had an appropriately named “Chaos” package that kept offensive coordinators up late at night. On certain third-and-long situations, the entire defense would stand up and line up well off the ball, making it impossible for the offensive line – and the quarterback – to know who was rushing.
“It’s basically you just line up wherever you feel like. But whenever the ball is snapped, you gotta get in your gap. I used to just line up at linebacker depth and just like I was blitzing, coming in at full sprint.”
For his defense, Kocab did it all. He was a leader and mentor and played “traffic cop” pre-snap, helping teammates get aligned and shift against motions. His bull rush collapsed the pocket and flushed quarterbacks to the sidelines. He ate double-teams against the run, freed up his linebackers, and make tackles when he could. He even was a special teams star with a whopping eight blocked kicks, a mix of field goals and extra points. Just another thing he can offer a future NFL team.
“It’s all get off,” he said of the key to block kicks. “I just get off the ball as hard as I can. I’ll talk with my special teams coach and I’ll say, ‘hey, do we have a key for what the holder is doing? When he’s shooting his hand, tapping the ground?’ Something like that. And if I can key in on whenever they’re gonna snap the ball that’s a huge factor.”
As you might expect, a small college like Carroll doesn’t have a Pro Day. For those trying to make it to the next level, they have to meet scouts where they’re at. Which means finding a bigger school. The only barrier to entry is needing an NFL team to recommend you. Do that and you’re in but it’s easier said than done. Kocab got help from his agent Jill Baxter and his favorite team – the Pittsburgh Steelers, specifically area scout Mark Bruener – opening the door for him to attend Montana’s Pro Day workout.
“In order to get into [Montana’s Pro Day], they said we have to have an NFL scout request to see us there. My agent, she’s been sending film out and stuff. She had sent some film to one of the Steelers’ scouts…[Mark Bruener said] ‘I would like to see him there.’ So he reached out to the UM guys and got me put in.”
Kocab put on a solid workout. At 6’2, 287 pounds, he ran a 5.22 40, 9’1″ broad jump, 30.5 inches in the vertical, and put up 23 reps on the bench press. Those numbers may not “wow” but he doesn’t have the luxury of the multi-million dollar training facilities future first round picks get, either. And his figures certainly aren’t anything to scoff at either.
Kocab and Bruener spoke at the Pro Day, the Steelers’ affirming his solid performance.
“He said that I had a good day. We had just talked a little bit about that I’m a Steelers fan. Stuff like that. We just had a regular conversation. He said I had a good day. He said he liked what he saw.”
Now all Kocab can do is wait. No, there aren’t many players from Carroll who make it to the NFL. But there is precedent. Tight end and Carroll alum Casey Fitzsimmons played seven years in the league for the Detroit Lions from 2003 to 2009. And every year, there are small school gems the league uncovers. Right now, it doesn’t matter if Kocab went to Carroll or Ohio State. Helmets aren’t being scouted. The tape is. And he’s good enough to get a shot.
“I’m just gonna show them the work ethic I’ve had and how hard I play. The big thing about me is I like to play hard. I play with that motor going a hundred miles an hour. Just play hard and I’m not gonna give up. I like to work with my teammates. I’m not a big ‘me’ guy, I guess you could say. One thing I’ve learned from playing college football is doing your job is really the most important thing.”
It’s an unselfishness only a nose tackle can have. No one lines up there for the glory. He’s done his job and done it well. All that’s left is for the NFL to give him the same opportunity.