Idaho wide receiver Jeff Cotton celebrates on the sideline during a football game against North Dakota. Cotton and the Vandals will travel to Montana to take on the Grizzlies at 1 p.m. MT Saturday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

MISSOULA — Idaho senior Jeff Cotton took the long road to stand out as a quality receiver at the Division I level.

The Tucson, Arizona, native went from a slow-developing high school player to a junior college All-American who momentarily drew interest from FBS schools. Cotton landed at Idaho, put together a solid junior year in 2018 and has broken out this season.

The 6-foot-2, 204-pound wideout leads the Big Sky in both receptions per game and receiving yards per game. His eight catches on average are the fourth most in the FCS, while his average of 101.6 receiving yards is the ninth best in the nation.

“I’d describe myself as a physical receiver that’s willing to do whatever he needs to do to help the team win,” Cotton said ahead of the Vandals’ game at Montana at 1 p.m. MT Saturday.

“Every time I step on the field, I try to have a dog mentality that I can’t be stopped and won’t be stopped and nobody on the other side of the ball can stop me or what I’m trying to do.”

Cotton has vandalized opposing secondaries since coming to Idaho in 2017 and first stepping onto the field in 2018. He's piled up 100 or more receiving yards five times in 19 career games, including three times in eight games this season.

Cotton put together a six-catch, 83-yard performance in the season opener at FBS Penn State, currently seeded No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings. He even had 96 yards and a touchdown at FBS Fresno State in 2018 and 91 yards at FBS Wyoming this year.

This season, Cotton has caught 64 passes for 813 yards and five touchdowns in eight games. He's accounted for nearly half of the Vandals' 206.7 receiving yards per game.

“I think he’s their best player on offense,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “He just makes a ton of plays. He’s all over the place. They do a nice job of trying to find different ways to get him the ball. He’s just a talented kid.”

Cotton credits the dog mentality that's helped him succeed largely to his dad, a former Division III football player who coached him in Pop Warner. They’d work out together on weekends outside of high school practice as Cotton tried to break onto the scene because he didn’t catch many passes until his senior year, he said.

“One day after practice, he told me every time you step on the field you need to have a killer mentality,” Cotton recalled. “Ever since then, I’ve just had that in my mind every time I step on the field — pretty much even in the offseason or in practice as well, just take everything like it’s a game.”

Cotton lacked the grades in high school to go straight to the Division I level, he said, so he went to Pima Community College in Arizona. He drew interest from FBS teams Kansas, UAB and UTEP after he earned JUCO All-American honorable mention status in 2016 by catching 43 passes for 837 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore.

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Academics again played a role in diverting Cotton’s future. He couldn’t graduate until August 2017, he said, so most Division I teams pulled their offers because he couldn’t join the team for spring camp or even summer workouts.

Idaho, an FBS team moving down to the FCS, offered him in May 2017. He chose the Vandals over Div. II and Div. III offers.

“I knew I wanted to go there because they were the only Division I (team) that still wanted me after me not being able to graduate early,” Cotton said.

He credits his growth since joining Idaho to head coach Paul Petrino, a former Carroll College quarterback who’s coached wide receivers at Louisville, Arkansas, Illinois and the Atlanta Falcons.

Cotton racked up a career-best 192 receiving yards on 10 catches two games ago in Idaho’s win over Idaho State. The Vandals don’t take many deep shots with quarterback Mason Petrino, throwing comfortably within 20 yards and up to about 30 yards to Cotton.

He was bottled up for five catches and 55 yards in Idaho’s 46-27 home loss to Montana last year in the first game of the rivalry since 2003. Montana’s defensive performance still sticks with him.

“Something I noticed last year is they hustled to the ball like no other,” Cotton said. “They’re the first team I think I’ve ever seen that damn near all 11 guys are around the ball after every play.

“They hustle to the ball. They’re a physical team. And they play hard. I think that’s the biggest thing is they play hard throughout the whole play.”

Cotton and the Vandals hope to return the favor this weekend in Missoula. If they can win, they’d snap Idaho’s first five-game skid in the series, which dates back to 1903.

“It’s a big rivalry,” Cotton said. “This is a game I know (Petrino has) been waiting for, I’ve been waiting for and a lot of guys on the team have been waiting for because last year they embarrassed us here.

“We’re excited about it, and we just can’t wait to get it going on Saturday. (Petrino has) just been telling us all week just get prepared and just be yourselves and go out there and compete for all four quarters.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.