Bobcats Burst Into Second Season of Jeff Choate’s Tenure

                                                                                      photo Jeff Krogstad

Jeff Choate is no stranger to history. He studied it at Western Montana College in the early ‘90s, and taught it in high schools around his home state of Idaho in the following years.

Last fall, Choate even made some history. He became Montana State’s first first-year football coach since 1983 to beat the school’s arch-rival, and the first since 1968 to earn that victory in Missoula.

Many would find satisfaction in a season that ended on that type of high note. Choate found only motivation. “That win was a good springboard into the off-season,” Choate said. “I think we all saw what this group is capable of,” and everyone in the program used the strong finish as fuel for a rigorous and productive winter and spring. “I like the work they got done.”

But Choate knows that much work remains. “The summer offers great opportunity” he said. “We’ve had buy-in from the players, and we have guys that have improved themselves physically. They look the part. Making physical improvements is something we emphasized at the beginning of this process, and we’ve seen progress.”

Translating that to the field is the ultimate goal. “Performance is what it’s about,” Choate said. “That’s what we’re working toward.”
Building to strengths
Montana State’s offensive personnel stands as nearly opposite of the group Choate and his staff inherited a year ago. The strength of Montana State’s 2016 offense, particularly in terms of experience, increased the further it moved away from the ball. The team had no veteran presence at quarterback and little in the offensive line, but running back and receiver held great promise.

A year later, the Cats feature a dynamic returning starter under center, a talented veteran to snap him the ball, and experience on the perimeter of the offensive line. That, Choate says, is a good place to start.

“One of the things we’ve spent time talking about since the end of spring ball is streamlining our verbiage, making it easier to communicate and simplifying things for Chris (Murray), knowing that he’s our guy going forward.”

Montana State’s offense remained a work in progress throughout the 2016 season. Choate’s emphasis on running the football never wavered, but a stylistic evolution occurred when Murray moved into the lineup.

“I think we’ll look similar offensively (to last year) because we had some success,” Choate said. “We ran the ball very well, but we need to diversify and throw the ball at a more efficient rate. We focused on our completion percentage this spring. We tracked every day, and we wanted to be at 65%. That’s a mark you can win with, that’s pretty good, and when you get up into the 70% range you have a chance to be a pretty efficient offense.”

Choate said first-year offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong and his staff “applied that benchmark every day” in order to analyze “when we use this route concept, we complete passes at this percentage, that sort of thing.”

The transition to Armstrong, and the addition of former MSU star DeNarius McGhee as quarterbacks’ coach, sparked the offense in the spring. “Brian’s really creative,” Choate said. “He does a really good job at building an offense that suits our playmakers, and that might be because of the time he spent coaching his school ball and building really prolific offenses at Rocky Mountain (College). You might have a few really good players at those levels, and you have to take advantage of what you have in a certain year.”

Murray’s presence as the trigger man gives the team a degree of certainty in engineering a scheme. “Obviously it all starts at quarterback and building around the things that Chris does well. That’s where the idea of refining our verbiage and communication on offense and building the offense to suit those strengths began, and couple that with the job DeNarius did mentoring Chris on and off the field and I think there has been tremendous offensive growth since the end of 2016.”

Murray’s continuing development as a passer - “Our receivers really like how he’s thrown the ball this summer,” Choate said in the midst of MSU’s player-run practices - gives Choate the opportunity to do things that bedevil defensive coordinators. “Mixing tempos, from my experience as a defensive playcaller, is one of the things that always drove me crazy. When teams constantly go fast or constantly go no-huddle you can get into a comfort zone, but changing things up can create a little confusion. I like mixing tempos from an offensive standpoint.”

In a backfield featuring nearly 3,000 career rushing yards from running backs last fall, Murray was the team’s most explosive ground threat. His 6.2 yards-per-carry as a freshman is the fifth-best mark over the course of a season in Bobcat history, and the fleet frosh gashed Big Sky defenses for gains of at least 15 yards 10 times in his five end of season starts. That included touchdown runs of 70 and 48 yards. “Chris is a deep threat whenever he has the ball,” Choate said, “regardless of whether he throws or runs.”

Even without the brand recognition of Chad Newell (2,111 career rushing yards) and Gunnar Brekke (1,258), Choate is pleased with his corps of running backs. Senior Nick LaSane’s presence as a durable all-purpose back anchors the group, while Boise State transfer Jake Roper emerged in the spring as a multi-purpose back. Junior Noah James and sophomore Anthony Pegues each offer useful traits, and sophomore Edward Vander joined the program this summer.

“We know what we have in Nick and Jake,” Choate said. “Nick really put in a lot of work, and he looks great. Both Jake and Noah bring versatility, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Eddie can add.”

Still, Murray has the ability to boost a run game into overdrive. “Our most dynamic runner is Chris,” Choate said. “When you have to defend the quarterback in the run game it’s like having to defend 11 instead of 10, so he creates a different dimension for the defense to take care of, and it creates a lot of options for an offense. I’d love to be a running back with Chris at quarterback because it softens the edges.”

When Murray looks to soften opposing defenses with his arm, several familiar stand at the ready. Receiver Mitchell Herbert has anchored the Bobcat receiving corps since arriving at MSU, and his senior season could see him rise the program’s receiving record lists. Choate’s appreciation for Herbert reaches far beyond the stat sheet.

“He probably gets sick and tired of hearing it,” Choate says, “but Mitch is the poster boy for student-athlete. I think three of the four terms I’ve been here he’s been a 4.0 (student), and when he was a 3.96 he got an A-minus. I don’t think he’s ever gotten below that at Montana State. He’s pre-med with a great vision for what his future is going to be, He’s been a tremendously productive and durable player on the football field. He’s not a rah-rah guy, but he’s a tremendous leader by example and we’ve had some conversations about that role expanding.”

Herbert is known for his savvy and ball skills, while classmate Justin Paige has been a vertical threat for all three of his seasons as a Bobcat. Like those two seniors, Kevin Kassis and Karl Tucker II emerged as freshmen to spark the receiving group. Injury ended Tucker’s season early, but Kassis established himself as an excellent receiver and return specialist as the season progressed. Add third-year sophomore Keon Stephens and incoming transfer Jabarri Johnson as bigger receivers and speedsters Willie Patterson and James Campbell, incoming freshmen, and the MSU receivers corps has a diverse group of pass-catchers.

Tight end has added a productive dimension to the MSU offense for nearly two decades. Connor Sullivan’s catch to seal the win over Montana remains one of the signature moments of 2016, and brought into focus his role as “our best pass-catcher” at tight end, Choate said. “He’s continued to develop as a blocker, is a very good seam ball-catcher, has a very good catch radius, and he’s an athletic kid who runs well. The more he embraces (blocking) the more valuable he’ll be in our offense.”

Curtis Amos Jr. also brings e, where he fits more as a “move tight end who had a really good spring,” Choate said. “We challenged him about becoming a more physical blocker and he embraced that, put some weight on, and did a really good job as our H-back.” Clark Judisch remains a promising developmental tight end who “just needs to keep getting bigger and stronger,” Choate said.

Replacing a pair of productive, veteran guards stands at the top of the offensive line to-do list. All-America JP Flynn and Monte Folsom, who Choate called “a great glue guy” depart, leaving opportunities for younger players. Senior Caleb Gillis looks to land a starting job for the first time this fall, while junior Wade Webster, sophomore Jake McFetridge and redshirt freshmen Taylor Tuiasasopo and Lewis Kidd are among those who battle for honors at the guard positions.

Whoever lands the nod at guard will be flanked by experience and talent. Alex Neale enters his second season as MSU’s starting center. “It all starts at center,” Choate said, “and Alex is able to control a lot of the communication at the line of scrimmage both in the run game and in our protections.”

Senior Dylan Mahoney returns as the starting left tackle, while Freshman All-America Mitch Brott starts on the other side. The two each bring mobility and athleticism, which is an apt description for the line as a whole. “I think we can be a better inside zone team in time, but if we’re going to a little lighter I think we have to take advantage of angles and get guys moving.”

Building on a strong foundation.
Montana State’s 2016 didn’t feature a defensive pivot point. There wasn’t a game that turned things around. It was a process, one that was discussed often throughout the season.

In the end, though, the season’s final two games stand as a road map for where the Bobcat defense is headed.

“There was a crisis of confidence on defense,” Choate says of the state in which he found Montana State’s once-proud program in December 2015. “The offense would make a play, and that would affect the next five or six plays for the defense. To be able to have that next-play mentality and go compete on every rep, like we showed late in the (2016) season, is what we’re after.”

Choate identified that mentality as a key step toward building the kind of physical, ball-hawking defense he desires. In an effort to spur his team to a fast, confident pace Choate and defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak pared back the scheme last fall. That began to change in the spring.

“We were not complicated on defense last year,” Choate said. “We actually ran more defense this spring than we did week in and week out last season, but that simplicity was good for our guys because they started to take ownership over what we call our grooved calls. Now we have the ability to rely on the confidence that was built on those calls and expand our defense a little bit to give us more options in attacking people.”

The biggest change Choate saw in the spring was depth along the front line, such a stark difference from the injury-wracked 2016 season that he called it “an awesome deal for us. To be able to have six or seven guys that we could get a ton of reps was great.”
Six of the front seven positions benefit starting experience. Senior Brandon Hayashi and junior Tucker Yates anchor the nose tackle spot, while junior Zach Wright and redshirt freshman Chase Benson man the tackle position. At end, Tyrone Fa’anono started as a sophomore in 2015, with Derek Marks filling in as a true freshman last year when Fa’anono went down with an injury. Senior Fou Polataivao adds depth inside, while Marcus Ferriter does the same on the outside.

“We check some boxes” on the defensive line, Choate said. “We have some natural pass rushers, pretty good size and power in the middle, and some athleticism and explosiveness.”

The same could be said of the hybrid end/linebacker Buck position, where Grant Collins - a converted middle linebacker - enters his third season as a starter. The home-grown junior “had a good spring,” Choate said. “The transition from inside linebacker took some time, but as the season wore on you could see him get more and more comfortable, and you could really see that in the spring.” Redshirt freshmen Michael Jobman and Kyle Finch provide depth at the Buck, and Choate calls them “young guys we’ll count on at the edge.”

Presumptive Preseason All-Big Sky choice WHO? has drawn less notice in terms of post-season accolades than his productivity might suggest during his two years as a starter. He led the Big Sky in solo tackles and tackles-for-loss as a sophomore - an accomplishment that earned him Honorable Mention honors in All-Big Sky voting by the league’s coaches, and nearly matched that effort as a junior in the transition of 2016.

The Bobcat staff utilized Bignell in different roles during the spring, giving the team positional flexibility entering the fall while allowing the other members of the linebacker corps to fall into positions that suit their strengths.

“Mac has played a ton of reps at Sam linebacker for this team,” Choate said, “but he can also play Will. That gives us the ability to do some different things.”

Much of that flexibility stemmed from a negative turn of events, Sam linebacker Jacob Hadley’s season-ending injury. Moving Josh Hill from Will, where he started throughout his redshirt freshman season, to the middle is one of those possibilities. Senior Jakob McCarthy is slotted in the middle, with his brother Lukas McCarthy backing Hill up at the Will and third-year sophomore Walker Cozzie adding depth at the Mike. Promising freshman Balue Chapman, projected as Bignell’s backup at Sam, also figures into the rotation.

In the secondary, Bryson McCabe returns as a Second Team All-Big Sky choice at free safety, while veterans Khari Garcia and Braydon Konkol hold down the strong safety spot. Ben Folsom moved from quarterback during the 2016 season, and adds depth. Damien Washington was a standout at corner as a true freshman, and veterans Bryce Alley and Braelen Evans also return. Those are the backfield certainties.

Variables enter the conversation in multiples when discussing other secondary possibilities. Transfers JoJo Henderson and Dre Jackson and freshmen Tyrel Thomas, Jalen Cole and Keaton Anderson will receive looks during fall camp.

Continually ramping up pressure on opposing offenses is a stated goal of the Bobcat defense, but Choate said that pressure can come in different forms. One week it may be a four-man pass rush, with linebackers playing a larger role the next week and disguising coverages emerging as a pivotal factor the week after that.

“If we’re playing a pass-oriented offense we have to be able to create pressure on the quarterback,” Choate said. “I think we have some natural pass rushers, and the ability to scheme some things. But creating confusion can be just as effective. Mixing coverage concepts can create pre-snap looks for the (opposing) quarterback that aren’t the same post-snap. We see such a variety of offenses this season that it’s a challenge week in and week out.”
Experience, production
One season after introducing an entirely new cast of kickers while enduring changes in the return game because of injuries, the 2017 season dawns with special teams stability.

Luke Daly’s return after missing 2016 gives the Bobcats one of the top kickers in the FCS. He is 21-for-28 in his career, but posted a tremendous 8-for-9 season in 2016 and nailed all three of his kicks over 50 yards. His long is 57.
“Luke looked really good in the spring,” Choate said. “He’s a proven commodity who has made a lot of kicks for this program. He also did some punting in the spring, and that could factor in (during the fall).”

Daly’s return bolsters an already formidable group. Jered Padmos stepped into the punter role last season as a true freshman, averaging a tick under 40 yards per punt with five of 50 yards or more and 10 inside the opponent 20-yard line. Fellow true freshman Gabe Peppenger handled  place-kicking duties with equal efficiency, connecting on each of his all 25 of his extra points while nailing nine of his 13 field goal attempts. Devon Tandberg also returns as a sophomore with a successful track record as a kicker.

Long snapper Rocky Hogue returns with a nearly-perfect record in his three seasons, and the return game matches other areas in proven productivity. Logan Jones, when healthy, is a premiere return man. Kevin Kassis blends sure hands with explosiveness and elusiveness.

Heading in the right direction
Jeff Choate’s first 18 months as Montana State’s head coach combined the blur of adapting to a new role in a new setting with the relentless need for patience. The spring and summer of 2017 fused those realities together. Choate and his staff put together a second talented and balanced class of newcomers, building for the future while answering needs in the present, while developing the talent on hand.

The Bobcats enter the 2017 season with returning talent at key positions - quarterback Chris Murray and a trio of veteran starters on the line fuel the offense, while Mac Bignell anchors a strong, deep front seven on defense. Add to that proven talent in the kick game, and whatever 2017 holds for the Cats it appears that a strong foundation exists and the future remains bright.

The immediate future features a daunting schedule. The Cats open the season with a bowl team followed by three straight FCS Playoff entries from 2017. It’s likely that Montana State faces the Big Sky’s toughest schedule when all is said and done.

Bill Lamberty is the Assistant AD of Media Relations for Montana State University.