The scheme is brand new and the Bobcats continue to master it. But that isn’t the main objective Kane Ioane is trying to nurture amongst his Montana State defenders.
“To me, execution is something we talk about every single day but more important than that is developing trust,” Montana State’s new defensive coordinator said following Monday morning’s session. “Developing that trust with your teammates, all 11 guys playing for one another, the guy to the left, the guy to the right and playing with that passion for each other is what it’s all about. Xs and Os and the scheme and all that stuff will come with the reps. But what I want to see is the guys flying around and playing for each other and developing that trust and passion for each other. If we do that combined with our scheme, it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”
Ioane, a Bobcat as either a player or a coach since 2000, is Rob Ash’s newly minted head of the defense. Two days into camp, the differences are already noticeable, both in the energy he projects to the players and his diverse scheme filled with odd-man defensive fronts. Ioane coaches just like he played, with a passion that does not waiver and a fierceness that stems from a desire to have fun.
“Anyone who knows Ioane, you know what he brings and it’s almost a playful seriousness because of the energy he brings and it’s consistent energy,” senior captain defensive tackle Taylor Sheridan said. “That’s one of the best things about him is there’s not a high or a low. He always has that good, consistent high energy for all of us to feed off.”
Since Ioane’s days roaming in former DC Pete Kwiatkowski’s secondary, Montana State has been known for its hard-nosed, attacking defenses. The last season and a half, the Bobcats have experienced a fall from grace.
Under Jamie Marshall’s direction, MSU led the league in scoring defense and total defense three times each. The Bobcats saw linebacker Jody Owens earn the Big Sky’s Defensive MVP in 2012 while defensive end Caleb Schreibeis won the Buck Buchanan Award as the FCS Defensive Player of the Year that same season. Players like Dane Fletcher and Brad Daly won BSC Defensive MVP honors in Marshall’s scheme as Daly made it back-to-back Bucks for the Bobcats in 2013.
In November of 2013, Montana State went to Eastern Washington and the only thing that stopped the Eagles was the goal line. EWU scored on all eight of its possessions, setting a Big Sky record for yards per play in a 54-29 decimation of the Bobcats. The loss triggered a three-game losing streak that ultimately snapped MSU’s string of three straight league titles.
Last season, the struggles continued. Montana State gave up nearly 300 passing yards per game and opponents threw 28 touchdowns. MSU broke a school record for points in a season but it was largely thwarted as the Bobcats gave up 33.5 points per game. Montana State scored 51 points against EWU and lost; 59 points against Sac State to win by a field goal; 44 points against Idaho State to win by a single score; and 40 points in a driving snow storm in the first round of the playoffs as its season ended against South Dakota State.
“Our goal this camp and this season is no errors. Last year, like when we had a guy blitz, we’d have guys messing up here, out of position there and that really killed us,” MSU junior defensive end Zach Hutchins said. “It made us hesitant to not even run plays like that. I think that we are going to have an emphasis on what everyone is doing on not just knowing what our spot does but what the whole defense does. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge but I also think it’s going to be the most helpful.”
“It’s motivation if we think about it but we try real hard not to,” Sheridan added. “Everyone saw last year and that’s not who we are. We are getting back this year to be what we want to be and that’s the best. We won’t strive for anything less than that.”
To remedy the defense, Ash made a slew of changes defensively. He promoted Ioane. With the departure of cornerbacks coach Brandon North, he promoted 2010 Bobcat captain Mike Rider to coach the position. He brought back Owens, who spent a few seasons coaching at L.D. Bell High in the Dallas area. And he’s let Ioane have full reign in revamping MSU’s strategy and assertiveness so far this off-season.
“I love the changes and I know the team loves them and the coaches love all of it,” said Grant Collins, a redshirt freshman who appears to be a rising star at middle linebacker. “We are getting excited about it. It’s looking good.”
The scheme is predicated on multiplicity, even and odd-man defensive fronts, playing the bandit end standing up and in space, more prevalent bump and run coverage in the secondary and a read and react mentality for the entire front seven. Another difference is the prevalence of rotation. Up front, MSU has three “teams” that will play based on situation and performance.
Hutchins is entrenched at the Bandit end with sophomore Tyrone Fa’anono the main guy at the other end spot. Sheridan seems to have the tackle spot locked down with junior college transfer Joe Naotala providing depth. Seniors Nate Bignell and Conner Thomas and redshirt freshman Tucker Yates have taken the bulk of the reps at nose tackle. Sophomore Devin Jeffries is backing up Hutchins, redshirt freshman Zach Wright is behind Fa’anono and junior college end Shiloh LaBoy is trying both spots. Sophomore Matt Brownlow is also in the mix at nose.
“I think (rotating) is so nice because there have been drives the last couple of seasons where we were completely gassed so we need to get fresh guys in,” Thomas said. “The past couple of years, we’ve had two dominant (tackles) and now we have a bunch of guys who can play and contribute. Hopefully, we can get 10, 12 guys in there who can all play.”
Collins seems to be the entrenched starter at middle linebacker and sophomore Mac Bignell is the distant leader for the Sam linebacker spot. Sophomores Blake Braun and Marcus Tappan, a Cincinnati transfer, are battling for the Will position. In the secondary, senior UAB transfer Des Carter will likely start, as will returning senior cornerback Bryson Keeton. The other cornerback spot will be a battle between senior Trace Timmer, sophomore Bryce Alley and a trio of freshmen — Tre’Von Strong, Chris Harris and Sidney Holmes. The free safety spot is a battle between sophomore Khari Garcia and redshirt freshman DeMonte King.
The scheme promises to be a more aggressive, more multiple version than anything seen in Ash’s eight years. It’s what needs to be done in the ever-changing landscape of college football, Ioane said. Last season, the Bobcats scored nearly 500 points and ranked 11th in the nation in scoring offense, yet just fourth in the league in points per game.
In other words, the gage for defenses has changed drastically since Ioane’s days as a player. In 2003, Ioane racked up 142 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles to earn the Big Sky Defensive MVP over future NFL Hall of Famer Jared Allen, an Idaho State alum that’s ninth in NFL history with 134 career sacks. That same season, Montana State led the league in scoring defense, surrendering 16.5 points per game.
That sort of measure is seemingly impossible nowadays, particularly with rule changes and an emphasis on offensive tempo. But Ioane still wants his defense to play with aggression. Just how much aggression Ash is comfortable with remains to be seen.
“It’s a lot easier to be aggressive in practice than in games,” Ash said. “The stakes aren’t so high. It’s not going to really settle out until we play games and we see how much we can put out there and survive with in terms of aggression. We have to challenge the defense during this camp and in our scrimmages and in team situations to see if we can hold up in our pressure looks against a good offense. It’s a good thing to have this explosive and balanced an offense to go up against so we will have an increasingly good idea. We will spend a lot of time in the office talking about just that: what’s our game plan going to be? How aggressive can we be?”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.