Big Sky Conference

Choate, Bobcats prepared for 1st Triangle Classic of new era

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Jeff Choate has no idea what to expect from his first trip to the Electric City. But Montana State’s new head coach already understands the importance of the two-day Triangle Classic in Great Falls.

“We can’t do anything around here if we can’t take care of these kids,” Choate said following Tuesday’s practice, the 10th of 15 sessions during his first set of spring drills at MSU. “College athletics in general is requiring we do more. We have to invest in these kids for student services so we can help them with their nutrition.

“The baseline is the scholarships. I know this event does a great deal to help us fund our scholarships. It’s a big event that is very important for us.”

MSU head coach Jeff Choate

MSU head coach Jeff Choate

Choate has spent the last decade as a position coach at high-level FBS programs like Boise State, Washington State, Florida and Washington. The concept of driving 200 miles to a rural hi-line city for a spring football scrimmage seems foreign but the Bobcats hope to make the most of it.

“I don’t really know what I’m getting myself into,” Choate said with a laugh. “No matter who you ask, you get a different answer for what the event is all about. One of the things that I’ve really talked a lot about is that 73 percent of the teams won their home games last year in the Big Sky Conference. We want to have an opportunity to simulate a road game. That’s a great advantage for us.”

The Triangle Classic will kick off with a media session with former NFL MVP quarterback Joe Theisman at 2 p.m. Theisman is the latest in a line of star guests selected to speak at the Triangle, joining NFL icons like Dick Butkus, Jim Kelly, Eric Dickerson and Brian Urlacher.

The Triangle Classic banquet will begin at 6 p.m. at Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls Friday night. An auction that helps raise money for the Bobcat Club will last until 10 p.m. Theisman will also speak and answer questions from a group of supporters expected to approach 1,000 people.

Montana State’s football team and spirit squad will conduct youth clinics at or around Memorial Stadium beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday. The day’s opportunity for autographs will be between the clinics and the scrimmage. On-site clinic registration is available, and scrimmage tickets are available at Memorial at Great Falls High for $5.

“It’s a cool event, a cool atmosphere at the banquet,” said MSU junior wide receiver Mitch Herbert, a third-team All-Big Sky Conference selection in 2015. “We are taking it as a business trip. It does simulate a road game and it’s something you can look forward to during spring ball.”

MSU offensive line

MSU offensive line

Among the biggest changes Choate and his staff have instituted in their four months on the job is a priority in aiding the nutritional needs of the Bobcat players. Choate attained sponsorships from Dairy Gold and Wheat Montana. The Bobcat weight room now has a sort of training table that includes food and drinks to refuel after workouts.

“That’s one of my No. 1 priorities. We call it the slight edge,” Choate said. “I’ll use former All-America left tackle) John Weidenaar as an example. If he’s at Florida or Washington, a couple of places I’ve been recently, the resources that are there, that kid wouldn’t have had the struggle like he did to play at 300 pounds. He goes out and trains for a few months for his Pro Day and he comes back and he’s gained 12, 15 pounds. If you can feed those kids a little bit extra and you have on staff nutritionists and you can provide them with the right stuff to fuel their body so they aren’t going over and grabbing junk food and fast food all the time, it makes a tremendous difference.

“If you can fuel these kids the right way, there’s a lot of natural antioxidants and natural anti-inflammatory you can help them cure their body with. It will help them recover fast. It’s a big deal for me.”

Thus far, the adjustments have been well received by the players. Raising money at the Triangle is a step closer to galvanizing the fan base enough to donate money to keep the improvements going.

We are split up into three categories: guys who need to gain weight, guys who need to maintain, guys who need to lose weight,” MSU senior linebacker Fletcher Collins said. “Having all that stuff there makes it really easy for us after workouts, after practice, between classes, you can just grab something if you need it.”

MSU quarterback Ben Folsom throws with Grant Collins in pursuit

MSU quarterback Ben Folsom throws with Grant Collins in pursuit

Montana State has engaged in scrimmage-like situations each of the first three Fridays of spring football. Saturday’s session will be structured similarly with some team action as well individual and group work. Choate said he has seen “incremental improvements” throughout as the Bobcats continue to adjust to the first new coaching staff at the school in nearly a decade.

“Up front, inside, back end, it’s all new,” MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “Coaches are new. The way you walk and talk as a coach is different for these kids. Coach Jeff…Rob and I, Coach Ash and I are friends. Jeff and Rob are different guys. I went through a coaching change in college (at Colorado). Coaching changes aren’t easy. I went through four of them at Montana. It’s tough.”

Spring drills thus far have been highlighted by a renewed energy infused by the coaching staff into the players. Saturday will mark a sort of unveiling of the culture Choate and his staff is trying to implement.

Montana State is coming off a 5-6 season, MSU’s first losing campaign since 2001. The Bobcats must replace All-Americans like Weidenaar, quarterback Dakota Prukop and tight end Beau Sandland off the league’s leading offense along with stalwart captain defensive tackle Taylor Sheridan from its much-maligned defense. Choate is starting by getting back to basics.

“(The coaches’) intensity in practice is the biggest difference,” MSU senior running back Chad Newell, a 2015 team captain, said earlier this spring. “And structurally, practice is different. We are focused on the fundamentals of football, which is awesome. The biggest thing we need to focus on is getting back to basics and that’s what we are doing right now. It’s a lot more about mastering your craft. We are deliberately practicing the details right now so when we do get into the scrimmage settings, those details are habits.”

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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