What exactly does new head coach Jeff Choate have planned for the Montana State Bobcats?
Fans are waiting in suspense as the football season commences and a new era dawns in Bozeman.
Choate is taking over the MSU program after spending the last two seasons as defensive line coach and special teams coordinator at Washington. Before that he was an assistant under Chris Petersen at Boise State and previously served at Florida.
Now Choate is head honcho of an FCS program looking to regain its standing as one of the best in the Big Sky. The Bobcats kick off the season at Idaho on Sept. 1 before returning home on Sept. 10 to play Bryant.
Rob Ash was fired two days after the Bobcats’ season ended a year ago in a loss to rival Montana. Ash finished his nine-year tenure with a 70-38 record. But last season, in which the Bobcats were picked to be a deep playoff contender, the team went 5-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Sky Conference.
Now Choate, with the help of former Griz defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, who joined the Bobcats in the offseason, is trying to instill a new hard-nosed culture.
The start of football camp last week marked a “crucible” for the Cats.
“I liked the exchange between the offense and the defense today,” Choate said after the team’s opening session. “I thought it was competitive, and right … I thought the competitive balance was where it needed to be today. I’m excited to see where that goes once we put the pads on.”
Montana State’s first-year coaching staff welcomes 34 new players.
The Bobcats were picked tied for seventh in the Big Sky Conference preseason coaches’ poll and eighth in the media poll.
Northern Arizona is returning the FCS freshman of the year in quarterback Case Cookus. Cookus threw for 3,117 yards in 2015, with 37 touchdowns. The sophomore is also a preseason All-Big Sky selection at quarterback, after being named a first-team All-Big Sky quarterback in 2015. The Lumberjacks last qualified for the FCS postseason in 2013, when the team finished in second place in the Big Sky.
Eastern Washington received first-place votes in both polls, and the Eagles return wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the reigning STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year, and a two-time Big Sky Preseason Offensive Player of the Year selection.
Defending Big Sky champion Southern Utah was selected to finish seventh in both polls. The Thunderbirds begin a new chapter under head coach Demario Warren.
In Bozeman, several key positions are up for grabs, primarily the starting quarterback role. Kalispell native Brady McChesney, a former all-state signal caller at Glacier High School and redshirt freshman at MSU, is one of three player vying for the position, along with Ben Folsom and transfer Tyler Bruggman. Bruggman appears to be the leading candidate in fall camp.
“I thought all those guys had good moments,” Choate said last week. “Tyler, Ben and Brady, all three of those guys did a great job. Some of the details of the route-running, the timing, we have to clean up, but in terms of understanding the offense, the operation, I was pleased. I thought all three of those guys did some nice things.”
A key asset this season, the offensive line returns four starters from 2015. This will help the Bobcats build their offense on a strong running game; MSU is loaded in the backfield with returners Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke back in action. Newell, a senior, rushed for 831 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, most on the team. Brekke added 304 yards rushing. Kalispell native Noah James, a former Glacier standout and sophomore at MSU, has also developed into a rising talent.
Another Flathead Valley product, Austin Barth of Columbia Falls, has become one of the team’s go-to leaders. Barth, a senior tight end, was a key contributor to last year’s record-setting offense as the second tight end, tallying 103 yards while building a reputation as a solid blocker. Choate has referred to Barth as a leader on this year’s team.
“I thought we started a little sluggish. Our guys were maybe feeling a little sorry for themselves (at the) start,” Choate told the Billings Gazette after the first practice. “One of our goals is to have our playmakers and leaders emerge, and especially on the offensive side in the second half of practice that happened.
“You could see guys like Gunnar (Brekke) and Chad (Newell) and Tyler (Bruggman) and Austin Barth start to kind of say, ‘Hey let’s go. We’ve got to pick this up.’ I was pleased to see that.”
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