‘Cats begin camp with renewed enthusiasm, high expectations


If you pulled up to Dyche Field around 2 p.m. on Sunday think you were going to be early for Montana State’s first practice of fall camp, you were right. But it surely didn’t seem like it.

The Montana State Bobcats hit the grass practice fields more than 30 minutes early to commence fall camp 2015. With temperatures lingering into the low 80s on a bluebird Bozeman afternoon, the ‘Cats looked energetic, focused, deep and for the most part healthy as the preseason No. 9 team in the Football Championship Subdivision chases a Big Sky Conference title and a run in the postseason.

Rob Ash with media“These guys showed up more than 30 minutes early today, which almost never happens and I thought their attention to detail was good,” said MSU head coach Rob Ash, who is 65-32 entering his ninth season at the helm.

Led by senior captain defensive tackle Taylor Sheridan, the Montana State defense looked reinvigorated after a fall from grace last season. A unit that will employ at least nine new starters seemed to have a firm grasp on new defensive coordinator Kane Ioane’s scheme. A year after ranking dead last in the 13-team Big Sky in passing defense and giving up 33.5 points per game, the Bobcats took the field Sunday with a new look and an initiative to keep things fun.

“I thought we looked great,” said Sheridan, a second-team All-Big Sky selection last season despite playing through constant pain in his shoulders. “We had a lot of energy. You expect that on Day 1, but we it was consistent through practice. Everyone was having fun. Talking to Ioane more and more, we are emphasizing having a lot of fun this summer and making sure everyone still enjoys what they do.”

The Montana State defense must replace 11 seniors plus starting defensive end Odin Coe, who left the team to join the Navy SEALS. MSU must replace a linebacker unit that started for two straight seasons together and included future and former Seattle Seahawk as well as three-year starters Na’a Moeakiola and Cole Moore.

Five of the seniors were linebackers all told, so MSU will have an almost entirely new two-deep. Sunday, sophomore Mac Bignell was the starting Sam with Toti Moeakiola backing him up. Freshman Grant Collins is the starting Mike linebacker with his non-related namesake Fletcher Collins, a junior, backing him up. Sophomore Blake Braun got the first-team reps at Will with explosive Cincinnati transfer sophomore Marcus Tappan backing him up.

“Intensity was great,” said Collins, the 2013 Class AA Defensive MVP at Bozeman High. “We came out ready to go. A lot of people were excited. We were just out here having a blast, working out the kinks from not seeing the field for a while. Hey, we are back at it.”

Mitch Herbert high pointThe defense will be challenged for the duration of the two-week camp by a fully loaded offense that could threaten the records it set a year ago. The four seniors plus junior All-America J.P. Flynn return on the offensive line in front of preseason All-America quarterback Dakota Prukop from a unit that set a school record by scoring 496 points a season ago. Behind Prukop, junior captain Chad Newell leads a stable of running backs that also includes junior Gunnar Brekke and upstart big-play freshman Tavon Dodd. The wide receivers could go 10-deep with captain Mitch Griebel leading a crew that also includes three players — Mitch Herbert, Jayshawn Gates and Justin Paige — who had breakout freshmen seasons last fall.

“The speed of our offense looked a lot better than last year even and last year was good,” said Griebel, a senior from Littleton, Colorado who led MSU with 45 receptions from his slot position. “This year, everyone is getting lined up fast. We are playing fast, we are thinking fast. We are all so cool with each other. The young guys, they have a long ways to go but I thought they showed some sparks there too. It was good to see them get out there and make some plays too.”

Montana State shot out of the gates a season ago, bursting to a 7-2 start that included losses at FBS Arkansas State and at home to No. 2 Eastern Washington by a single point (52-51). But the Bobcats lost two straight to end the season, including an embarrassing beat down at the hands of rival Montana (34-7) and a single-score home playoff loss in a driving snowstorm to South Dakota State.

Montana State has taken a step back from the championship level it attained to begin the decade. The Bobcats won three straight Big Sky titles between 2010 and 2012, posting a 21-3 record against the conference in the process. MSU is 15-10 in the last two seasons after winning 11 games in 2012.

Taylor Sheridan bag drillsStill, MSU has received plenty of preseason hype, from a No. 9 preseason ranking to a place atop the media preseason poll. And the Bobcats are carrying themselves with the confidence of a team with high expectations.

“I think that confidence is a good thing and we’ve decided as a coaching staff to embrace all that,” Ash said. “As a team, it’s ok to be confident. There’s a big difference between confidence and over confidence. We have a group of guys who know how to work and that’s the key to success. But I don’t think it hurts to be confident and I think this group is.”

Much of the confidence within the team and the hype surrounding the Bobcats stems from Prukop. During a breakout 2014 campaign, the junior from Austin, Texas totaled 3,529 yards from scrimmage and 31 touchdowns in his first year as a starter, including the school’s top rushing mark for a QB with 932 yards. He totaled almost 1,000 yards and 14 total touchdowns during a two-week tear through California that produced the single most-prolific outburst in school history. Against UC Davis, MSU scored 77 points and piled up 737 yards, both program records.

Prukop spent the summer taking his work ethic even a notch above the dedication he showed to earn the starting job last off-season. He spent multiple stints training with his cousin, Northern Colorado quarterback Jonathan Newsom at the facility of quarterback guru George Whitfield. Now Prukop enters his second season as a starter as a preseason All-America and a team captain.

“I’m really impressed that Dakota has worked this summer because he knew he was going to be the starter. He knew he could be a good player and he could’ve rested on his laurels but he didn’t do that at all,” Ash said. “He worked even harder this summer than last summer when he knew he had to win the job. It’s amazing.”

“He’s going to be a tremendous leader. He’s light years ahead of last year if that’s possible as good a year as he had last year.”

In an effort to boost the team’s confidence, Montana State loaded up on transfers during the off-season. Senior tight end Beau Sandland joined the squad last fall and redshirted. The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder formerly of Miami should be one of the Big Sky’s best combinations of size and speed. The offense also added junior wide receiver Brandon Brown from Baylor.

Kane Ione calling playsDefensively, the Bobcats added seven transfers, including senior safety Desman Carter and sophomore safety Bryson McCabe; each joined the team in January and participated in spring drills. MSU also added Tappan and Zach Stern to the linebacker corps, but Ash said MSU was still waiting on paperwork from Santa Monica Junior College before Stern can participate in team activities. Up front, defensive end Jessie Clark won’t know about his eligibility until Tuesday but defensive tackle Joe Naotala (Palomar JC) and defensive end Shiloh LaBoy (College of the Redwoods) will bring added size at the very least.

“As coaches, it’s a challenge now to fit all the guys as far as getting reps,” said Ioane, a Hall of Fame player that enters his 16th consecutive season at his alma mater, including his 12th as an assistant coach. “The guys we need to see need to get seen on film. That’s a big difference from now and the spring. It’s a good thing, a good problem to have.”

Carter is the first-day starter at strong safety next to redshirt freshman free safety DeMonte King. Sophomore Khari Garcia, a part-time starter in 2014, is backing up Garcia playing next to McCabe on the second unit. Sunday, senior Trace Timmer played opposite classmate Bryson Keeton as the first-team cornerbacks. Sophomore Bryce Alley, the starter for most of spring, was across from Billings Skyview product freshman TreVon Strong with the second string. Freshmen Sidney Holmes and Chris Harris (who will not redshirt) could also challenge for a spot in the rotation, Ash said.

Peter Fields addresses team“We’ve got to get the secondary shored up,” Ash said. “That’s the biggest one. We have to find that other corner opposite Bryson Keeton and we have to solidify the safeties. We have four safeties working hard trying to compete. I want to get that settled and I want to build depth too but we have to get that secondary together.”

The defensive line included Sheridan and senior Conner Thomas playing defensive tackle for the first team with sophomore Tyrone Fa’anono and junior Zach Hutchins as the first-string ends. Senior Nate Bignell and redshirt freshman Tucker Yates are the backup tackles. Redshirt freshman defensive end Zach Wright and sophomore Devin Jeffries are the backup ends. LaBoy, Naotala, and sophomore Matt Brownlow also rotated in up front.

To me, execution is something we talk about every single day but more important than that is developing trust,” Ioane said. “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. 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.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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