BOZEMAN — Kyle Risinger is the teacher, a student of the game himself who loves spending extra hours in his office going over the finer details of Montana State’s coverage schemes with the Bobcat secondary.
Mark Orphey is the chameleon, the glue that binds Montana State’s defensive backs together with his versatile personality, an essential trait in a room with players from a variety of different backgrounds.
Together, the 29-year-old Orphey and the 28-year-old Risinger are helping mentor an MSU group in the middle of a resurgence.
“I think both those guys have done a tremendous job,” Montana State third-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “Mark really connects with these guys on their level, can really be demanding with them but is not a yeller or a screamer. He’s a guy who will pull them in and do the sidebars with them and build their confidence and try to meet their needs so they feel comfortable. He works a lot on corner technique and you can see the development in all of our corners under Mark’s leadership.
“Kyle is a football junky. He is constantly watching film and bringing those guys in to his office to teach them on the board. If a kid wants to be good, they are going to have every opportunity because Kyle is willing and likes to put in the time.”
A secondary that featured current starter at Arizona State Demonte King at safety, current contributor for the Utah Utes Tre’Von Strong at cornerback, future NFL cornerback Bryson Keeton and FBS transfer safety Des Carter ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical pass defense category in 2015, Rob Ash’s last at the helm. MSU secured just three interceptions that fall, finishing 5-6 thanks in large part because of its porous defense.
Choate made a splash hire in former NFL starting defensive back Gerald Alexander as his secondary coach. The second round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft played five seasons in the NFL before a neck injury abruptly ended his career.
After spending one season at Indiana State, the brash, driven man every Bobcat called “GA” brought his unique blend of swagger, energy and football acumen to Choate’s coaching staff. He helped safety Bryson McCabe and cornerback John Walker earn All-Big Sky honors. His bravado was most accurately on display when he came out of the visiting locker room at Washington-Grizzly Stadium before MSU’s annual rivalry game against the hated Montana Grizzlies not wearing a shirt.
And just like the shooting star that he is, Alexander was gone. After one season at MSU — a year in which he helped the Bobcats land talented recruits like current sophomore cornerbacks Jalen Cole and Tyrel Thomas along with redshirt freshmen twins Ty’Rese and Ty’Rhae Gibson — Alexander took a job on Justin Wilcox’s staff at Cal. Alexander was an All-Western Athletic Conference selection when Wilcox was the defensive coordinator at Boise State.
During GA’s only season in Bozeman, he was the coach for the entire MSU secondary, working with the corners and safeties. But Risinger, who was a graduate assistant at Indiana State with Alexander in 2015, was a defensive assistant who helped Alexander manage and coach the group.
When Alexander told Choate he was moving to the Pac 12, Choate knew he wanted to find someone who could relate to the players. He also knew he wanted to continue cultivating Risinger as a coach.
“One of the things when this whole thing came down and I knew I wanted to give Kyle an elevated role, move him to a full-time coach, I wanted to make sure whoever we hired to be the secondary coach would be able to work with him and was comfortable with him.
“I sat Mark down and said here’s the money, here’s the deal, here’s what we got going and then I said, ‘by the way, we aren’t going to split the room, you are going to have meetings together with another secondary coach.’
“Mark said he was interested in keeping Kyle here and learning from him, having him be around to help teach the scheme and the terminology to both him and continue teaching it to the players.”
The push to replace Alexander was a completive one, Choate said. The MSU head coach said he usually has a coach in mind given his five stops as an FBS assistant before taking his current job. This time, he brought in three candidates, “the only time I’ve brought in three jobs for any position on this staff,” Choate said.
Choate worked for Will Muschamp, South Carolina’s current head coach, when Muschamp was the head coach at Florida. After talking to Muschamp, he learned of Orphey, a graduate assistant at USC.
“When he got on campus, one of the things he said is, ‘I’m a chameleon. I can fit in anywhere. I can coach any type of kids.’ You really have to be that way,” Choate said. “If your coaching style only fits one personality, in a room with 15 guys, you are probably only connecting with four or five. I’ve seen that with him…He’s a good role model for those guys, a good mentor and we are lucky to have him.”
The Houston native was a three-year starter at Texas Southern, earning All-SWAC honors as a junior and a senior in 2009 and 2010. He started coaching corners at Texas Southern in 2011 and 2012, helping two players earn all-league honors.
Orphey went to South Carolina as a quality control assistant in 2013, then was a GA from 2014 until 2016. The Gamecocks advanced to three bowl games in those four seasons, earning two of USC’s 12 all-time bowl wins.
Risinger is from Minnetonka, Minnesota. He began his college career playing basketball at Minnesota-Crookston in 2009. For the final three seasons of his collegiate career, he played safety at Division II St. Cloud State, earning All-Northern Sun honors as a senior in 2014. He notched 200 tackles and eight interceptions in his career.
Orphey has proven to be just the personality Choate wanted to work with an eclectic group that includes starters from Compton, California, Virginia Beach, Salt Lake City, Utah and Belgrade, Montana.
“I rely on him so much,” said junior cornerback Gregoray “Munchie” Filer III, a Compton College transfer who is the only MSU corner with a pick this season. “Being on top of everything, taking everything serious, really just getting in my playbook, he makes sure I do that.”
And Risinger has been the teacher Choate expected him to be.
“He’s a young guy and he always tells me he’s a student too,” said MSU junior safety JoJo Henderson, a native of Salt Lake City and transfer from Snow College before last season. “He’s always looking up at some of these high-major college secondary coaches, learning from them. He shares that information with us.
“When he came here, he came in with GA and GA was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” junior safety/linebacker Brayden Konkol, a Belgrade native, added. “Everything Kyle knows, he took from GA. He definitely knows what he is talking about and he’s good at teaching it to you. A lot of guys, they know their stuff but they don’t know how to teach it. Kyle is good at teaching it.”
The duo has gelled from the get-go, establishing contrasting yet complimentary roles in guiding two groups that meet together.
“I think it’s awesome, especially us being so young and being able to relate to the guys,” Orphey said. “If I go down or he go down, we can trust each other to all know we are on the same page. Last year, we bounced ideas off each other and at the end of the day, we come to a mutual agreement.
“It’s always good to have two guys on the back end because it’s a lot to take and you can’t see it all.”
Montana State defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said in the 2018 off-season that one of his biggest concerns for the Bobcat defense was finding consistency in both personnel and leadership.
Those additions, Konkol’s return to the back end (at least for the first half of the season), Henderson’s renewed health and the maturation of Cole and Thomas have provided the influx in depth that MSU needed. The steady progression of Montana State’s two secondary coaches has the Bobcat secondary operating at its highest level since Darius Jones, Joel Fuller and Deonte Flowers helped the Bobcats to the 2012 Big Sky title.
“We tell those guys, ‘Look man, it’s not our unit, it’s not Coach Choate’s unit, it’s y’all’s unit,” Orphey said. “If we come up with all these goals, how are we going to achieve these goals? Everybody said they want to be the best secondary in the Big Sky. Ok, well, who is the best secondary in the Big Sky? You have to know who you are chasing. Those guys understand is it’s a long season and it’s going to take everyone in the room.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.