When Jeff Choate took over as the head football coach at Montana State, he quickly proclaimed he wanted to build the foundation of his program on in-state products.
Over the last 15 months, Choate and his staff have touted the phrase “Beat the Sky, Own the State” at every turn, from breaking down after practice with a collective cry to using it as a hash tag on social media.
Choate’s first recruiting class included 10 recruits from Montana. With a full year to work on his second recruiting class, Choate again put a high priority on keeping the best in the Treasure State under the Big Sky.
“We may go outside Montana for arms and legs from time to time, but our heart and soul is going to come from Montana,” Choate said right after noon on Wednesday, National Signing Day for the Bobcats and all the other Division I football programs around the country.
The Bobcats signed 27 players on Wednesday, including adding 10 more native Montanans to their roster. The group included Dillon star Troy Andersen, a future linebacker at MSU, Class AA Defensive MVP safety Keaton Anderson out of Billings Senior, towering Kalispell Glacier defensive lineman Jaxen Hashley and Glacier linebacker Tadan Gilman. All four were offered full scholarships by the Bobcats and the Montana Grizzlies.
“We got every one but one, one guy we offered that we went head to head against Montana and didn’t get. Just one,” Choate said as he addressed a crowd of about 150. “I’m not just talking in the state of Montana. I’m talking literally from coast to coast, from Palatka, Florida to Sammammish Washington, from Tampa Bay to Compton. We put in a lot of hours and a lot of hard work. Very, very proud of the work of our staff.”
The rest of the Montana contingent of signees included partial scholarship players linebacker Ryan Davis of Billings Skyview, Bozeman High quarterback Callahan O’Reilly and wide receiver Lance McCutcheon, one of O’Reilly’s favorite targets last fall. The group also included preferred walk-on additions wide receiver Peyton Hanser of Billings Central, fullback R.J. Fitzgerald of Dillon and defensive end Ty Morgan of Ennis. Montana showed interest in Hanser and brought McCutcheon on an official visit to Missoula but did not officially offer either.
“I’m especially proud of the job we are doing in this state,” MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, who spent 13 years at Montana before joining Choate’s first staff, said. “I’m a firm believer that if this thing is going to be great, then the core of this team and the core of this defense will be made up of Montana kids. Six of the 11 high school defensive kids are from Montana ranging from Kalispell to Billings and everywhere in between.”
Choate’s assertion his team only lost one player offered by both his Bobcats and the rival Grizzlies — UM and MSU each offered Montana Gatorade Player of the Year Nathan Dick a partial scholarship — came with some grey area. Montana State offered Montana signee Braydon Deming of Billings West last signing day but pulled his offer when another recruit committed. Montana State also showed strong interest in Montana signees linebacker Michael Matthews of Camas, Washington and safety Isiahia Banks of Denver, reportedly offering both. But MSU rescinded the offers upon receiving commitments from other prospects. Montana State recruited UM signee McKenzie Holt under its former coaching staff but not at all under Choate.
Details aside, Choate felt confident in the group he assembled, especially the ones who will keep their 406 area codes.
“Time will tell but I know this: by any measure, by anybody who knows ball, we got four out of the top five kids in this state,” Choate said. “We only offered one guy (Dick) who we didn’t get. From this state, they are offering those same guys. I’m not going to compare this to that. The bottom line is we got the guys we wanted and we feel good about it.”
While the class put a high priority on keeping homegrown products home, it also helped the Bobcats add speed, length and a winning mentality, Choate said during a nearly two-hour address at the GranTree Hotel in Bozeman on Wednesday. The 27 signees compiled a cumulative record of 216-63 last fall and 25 of the players won at least one state championship in their prep careers.
“Winning matters,” Choate said. “Kids coming from winning programs is important. That was a huge emphasis of ours.”
Choate’s second class also helped the Bobcats expand their recruiting footprint, returning to traditionally fervent grounds like Seattle and Boise while also expanding into Georgia and Florida. MSU offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham recruited Florida extensively at previous stops coaching at Southern Miss and Iowa State. Offensive line coach Brian Armstrong was a head high school coach for four years in Florida.
Montana State signed four players from Idaho, all four from Meridian, a suburb of Boise. Quarterback Tucker Rovig (Mountain View High), Rocky Mountain High linemen Zach Redd and Connor Wood all come to MSU as incoming freshman. Jake Roper, a running back who prepped at Rocky Mountain, comes to Montana State after spending last season as a redshirt at Boise State. Choate was at Boise State on Chris Petersen’s staff from 2006 until 2010. Wide receivers coach Matt Miller and defensive line coach Byron Hout were standout players at BSU.
“Spokane has become a really good basketball town. Why? Gonzaga basketball. Boise has become a really good football town. Why? Boise State football,” Choate said. “Over the last 15 years, it’s been a great place in the football world so kids grow up wanting to be ball players.”
The Bobcats also received official letters from Eastside Catholic (Sammammish, Washington) offensive lineman Brody McKnight and Franklin Pierce (Tacoma) wide receiver Willie Patterson in the greater Seattle area. Sheldon (Eugene, Oregon) defensive end Kyle Rygg also signed, choosing MSU over seven FCS offers and preferred walk-offers from Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona and Boise State, helping MSU to reestablish its footprint in the Pacific Northwest. Former head coach Rob Ash and his staff recruited the area sparingly in recent years.
“You have to have a presence in the I-5 corridor right now in this league,” Choate said. “You have to stop waiving the white flag over there and say, ‘If they don’t go to Washington or Washington State, they go to Eastern Washington. Well, there’s a lot of really good football players over there and it’s an area that fits us.”
Montana State graduates just one offensive lineman — All-America J.P. Flynn — from last season’s 4-7 squad. Yet the trenches were a priority on both sides of the ball. Armstrong said the first things he looks for in offensive linemen is chemistry. He feels he the collection of road graters the Bobcats signed Wednesday share a common mentality.
“I love saying you have to play like a nickel and not five pennies,” Armstrong said. “Even though they equal the same amount, they are not the same deal. The chemistry we have in our room is very important. The first thing I did when these guys left from their official visits was talk to their player hosts and make sure they were going to be good fits in our room. They all checked out.”
Roper is one of four transfers signed in this class, including Air Force Prep defensive end Stephen Omorogbe, a 6-foot-4, 260-pounder originally from Woodstock, Georgia who comes to MSU with four years of eligibility remaining. Wide receiver James Campbell (Palatka) and running back Tyrel Burgess (Haines City) are the first two players from Florida to join the Bobcats since All-Big Sky linebacker Clive Lowe graduated in 2006.
Cornerback Darren Gardenhire, a transfer from Washington who will redshirt in 2017 before playing his final season in 2018, was among the four transfers the Bobcats officially announced Wednesday. Gardenhire is part of a strong contingent of stellar defensive backs signed by the Bobcats, a group that also includes Mater Dei stud Jalen Cole and St. John Bosco Prep standout Tyrel Thomas, a pair of all-state cornerbacks from the Trinity League, one of California’s most competitive.
Edward Vander, a first-team All-Trinity performer as a junior at JSerra Catholic, is the fourth transfer in the group. The standout running back has been on recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Michael Pitre for three full years. He almost signed with MSU last February before going to Saddleback Community College for a season.
“Edward was a guy, we were trying to find anyway to get that kid in our program because we knew he could be a difference maker the moment he steps on campus,” Pitre said.
Vander will join the Bobcats after the completion of the spring semester. Roper, Gardenhire and Omorogbe are already enrolled in classes at MSU. Aside from Gardenhire, the other three MSU transfers will have three or more years to play with Roper and Omorogbe having four years left.
“That’s by design,” Choate said.
The Trinity League defensive backs committed to MSU early in the 2016 season at least in part because of former Montana State secondary coach Gerald Alexander. The former Boise State standout played five years in the NFL before spending one year each at Indiana State and Montana State during a meteoric rise that eventually landed him at Cal.
Cole, a 3-star prospect regarded by many as the top recruit in the Big Sky Conference, fielded offers from Colorado State, across the Mountain West and even from the Ivy League. He and Thomas both led their teams to California sectional titles before Thomas’ Braves took down De La Salle in the California Open state championship game.
Coming down the recruiting stretch, tensions were tight if Montana State could hold on to the prized defensive backs. Days after the duo made their official visits to MSU in mid-January, Alexander’s hiring in Berkeley became official. Yet Montana State managed to hold on to both.
“You talk about guys that had people coming at him…we lost our defensive backs coach 10 days before signing day to the University of California and I was in this young man’s (Cole) home,” Choate said. “He and Tyrel were up on a visit the next weekend and I knew Gerald was gone. I had to sit down with them and say, ‘Just so you know, this is going to happen.’ And it did.
“But they were committed to us and they had already had every Mountain West school, every Big Sky school making a run at them. When Gerald took the job at Cal, the vultures really came out. These guys didn’t budge. They said, ‘Coach, we didn’t commit to Montana State for one person. We committed to Montana State for the vision you have in this program and the direction it’s going.”
Orange Lutheran defensive lineman Travis Yates, an early commit who MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said could be “A big-time player” impact player early, rounded out the group of Trinity stars. Yates is a three-star recruit who was one of MSU’s only recruits who took an in-season official visit before fielding offers from around the Mountain West and the Big Sky.
The Golden State reaped rewards outside the private school conference as seven California natives total signed with Montana State. Garces Memorial (Bakersfield) offensive tackle Sean Hatten committed to MSU before his senior season only to blossom and earn four Mountain West offers. Great Oak (Temecula) linebacker Chad Kanow also committed before his final prep season only to put up monster numbers and ensure MSU would hold its breath until his NLOI came across the fax machine on Wednesday.
“You are talking about holding on to a kid for six months, the babysitting part of this job and that’s where you get a little bit nervous,” Choate said. “You always get a little bit nervous when the coaching changes happened. There were three that happened this year (Nevada, Fresno State, San Jose State) that concerned me…did we compete against them? Yes. Did we lose anybody to them? No.”
Aside from winning, the class also encompassed leader an attitude of leadership with a priority on academics. The group includes at least 15 players who were team captains in high school and the future Bobcats have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.4. Of the 27 signees, six — Rovig, O’Reilly, Campbell, Patterson, Andersen and Gilman – played quarterback in high school.
“I told myself a long time ago, when I get a chance to be a head coach, I’m going to sign four to six high school quarterbacks every year,” Choate said. “You might say why? Well, who is the best athlete on the team on most high school teams? The quarterback? Who is the best leader on most high school teams? The quarterback. For us to be really, really good, we need to have great leaders and we need play-makers.”
Of those quarterbacks, Andersen (outside linebacker) and Gilman (outside linebacker) will play defense, as will 13 of the signees overall, including five on the defensive line, four at linebacker and four in the defensive backfield.
“I’m thrilled with the fellas we are signing,” Gregorak said. “We are looking to become a more athletic and fast defense and I think we found some real key pieces that will help us. Hopefully not right away — if it was up to me, I’d redshirt every one of these kids if we could. But I know we have found some pieces we can build it in to what we want to.”
Choate readily admitted Wednesday’s pageantry is only temporary. The true measure of this and all recruiting classes will not be known for several years.
“Rankings are like stats; you focus on them a little bit, you pat yourself on the back but a true value of a recruiting class comes two, three, four downs the road when these guys are playing and winning championships at Montana State,” Choate said. “But I really feel strongly we’ve done a good job of putting together a group of young men that are very cohesive together.”
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