Fall Camp

Fall camp procedures, upgrades continue entering Choate’s third season

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BOZEMAN — Evaluating depth charts or counting repetitions seemed impossible during the first four days of fall camp at Montana State.

Practicing on the expansive grass of Dyche Field, the Bobcats had all five of its quarterbacks operating as the full 94 men on the fall camp roster took reps on multiple fields during an up-tempo introduction into Jeff Choate’s third season at the helm.

“Our staff has been together for a while now,” Choate said following the first day of action. “We can get good repetitions. Instead of those young guys only getting a handful of reps during team periods, they are over there getting the same number of reps as the guys who have been here for awhile. I think that’s going to be huge for us if we can stay healthy and continue to get better at that because the only way to get better at playing football is to play football.”

The new style has been accepted by the Montana State players, giving each a chance to improve individually while maximizing the drill work each receives.

“You don’t have to worry about guys sitting out or getting cold, guys coming in, not paying attention, whatever it may be,” sophomore offensive lineman Lewis Kidd said. “And it’s also working our cardio for sure. We want to play fast this year and the defense wants to play fast as well.”

“The first two years, (Choate) showed us how he wants it, how it’s run here and now I think everyone is bought in,” added senior tight end Connor Sullivan said. “Now we know the culture, what to do and how to do it. We just have to go out there and play.”

Montana State one offense vs one defense/by Brooks Nuanez

The spread out nature and up tempo pace of Choate’s third fall camp — the Bobcats enter the second week on Monday after scrimmaging for the first time on Saturday — is not the only tweak implemented by the MSU coaching staff. In his constant quest to protect his players and maximize their experience at Montana State, Choate has added a few pieces of safety equipment to the uniforms and helmets of many of his charges.

In an effort to reinforce and support players who have suffered shoulder injuries and in an effort to mitigate and prevent those who have not but play prevalent impact positions, many Bobcats are wearing football shoulder cuffs.

All MSU offensive and defensive offensive linemen have been wearing Guardian Caps on their helmets, a padded extra layer of protection over the helmet as the concern over head injuries continues to rise across football at all levels.

Montana State defensive lineman Zach Wright (96) and Derek Marks (95) wearing Guardian helmet covers/by Brooks Nuanez

“There is no scientific evidence that this is going to prevent anything but if it prevents one (concussion), whatever we invest in, that’s worth it,” Choate said. “I think we have an obligation as coaches to preserve the greatest team game there is. Outside of the military, this is the last great proving ground for young men.

“This is not easy. Air-conditioned basketball arena shooting 100 baskets a day… you are out here sweating and bleeding. It’s a gladiatorial sport. My idea is that it’s not only our obligation to teach techniques but also, if there’s anything technological we can use equipment-wise, we want to use that.”

Upon first look, the Guardian bubbles look awkward and like a new form of helmet. In reality, the players have not noticed them after adjusting to wearing them.

“It might look awkward but I don’t mind it,” MSU junior defensive end Derek Marks said. “They are just trying to do as much as they can to prevent concussions, especially with the way football is going as a whole. The outside perspective of football, there are a lot of people who don’t think too highly of the game so I think this is just one more thing to help protect us.”

When Montana State spreads the field, Choate has gone on top of the film scissor lift that splits the “offensive” and “defensive” fields at Dyche. He stands roughly 40 feet above the action. In order to communicate more efficient, and save his voice, Choate bought a PA system that people around the field and the surrounding area can hear with ease.

Montana State head coach Jeff Choate/by Brooks Nuanez

When Montana State moves its practices into Bobcat Stadium for team 11-on-11, Choate has often watched from the Bobcat Stadium press box, giving him a bird’s eye view of the action. From the box, he can also use the stadium PA and bark out orders.

“I think it does two things; No. 1, I think it helps our coaches because one of the things I’ve learned about myself over the last two years as a head coach is that I meddle a lot,” Choate said. “Sometimes, me getting out of the way and letting those guys operate helps things.

“And it does give me a different perspective. Hell, all I’m doing is saying, ‘Here’s the situation, here’s the ball.’ I have a mic. That helps our flow of practice because everybody is not going, ‘Where’s the ball, what are we doing.’ I can just take the mic, this is the deal, everyone knows what’s going on. It’s helped our communication, our flow of practice, helped our coaches and it’s helped me observe and evaluate our coaches.”

In December of 2015, Choate took over a Bobcat program in a state of disarray. After 14 straight winning seasons, including playoff appearances in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, Montana State led the country in scoring yet still finished 5-6 in 2015. Complacency had crept into the program and continuity was a thing of the past.

Choate went to work rebuilding the roster and, more importantly for his vision, the culture of toughness, accountability and togetherness. As his third fall camp enters its second week, the intangible results seem solid.

Montana State defenders Brayden Konkol (18), Damien Washington (27), Tucker Yates (92)/by Brooks Nuanez

“I think we are much more mature football team,” Choate said. “The kids understand that we are not going to go crazy on them. If there is time for us to back off, we will back off when appropriate. I think they trust us. Sometimes, when they don’t trust you, they are always going to be dipping their toe in the water, ‘what are we getting ourselves into today?’ I think we trust we are going to be smart with them at the right times, and we are going to push them, get them out of their comfort zones as well.

“Even without the incumbent quarterback here (Chris Murray), we were still able to get through our install three times in the course of our PRPs (summer player-run practices) and then they get the opportunity to go do it with the coaches there. While there’s still a ton of things we have to clean up before we get to the Western Illinois but I think there are reasons for optimism. I like where we are. I do think we are head of last year at this time.”

That maturity was fortified this summer. Choate said 86 players, or every eligible Bobcat except safety Brian Campbell, stayed in town. The only reason Campbell was absent? He was living in Renton outside of Seattle for an internship with Boeing.

Because of that maturity, MSU has scheduled days off for some of its proven veterans. Senior inside linebacker Grant Collins recovered more quickly than expected from off-season shoulder surgery but has been eased back into action. Junior strong safety Brayden Konkol is also coming back from off-season shoulder surgery and sat out during Saturday’s scrimmage.

Other players who have received designated days off have included senior wide receiver Johnny D’Agostino, sophomore offensive guard Taylor Tuiasosopo  and transfer running back Tyler Natee while veteran defensive linemen like seniors Zach Wright, Tucker Yates and Tyrone Fa’anono saw very few snaps on Saturday, Choate said.

Montana State wide receiver Willie Patterson (11) blocks a ball in punt drill/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s just like a car: you only get so many miles on it before it’s gotta go to the shop,” Choate said. “We like to be smart, let it sit in the garage for a day and not have to take it to the shop. We did this a few years ago with J.P. coming off a knee injury where basically he only went every other day. We are trying to get these guys through a little bit then give them a day or two depending on the situation. Most of them are veteran guys who have played enough football that they know what they are suppose to do.”

Montana State continues fall camp on Monday morning with a practice that begins at 10:20 a.m. that is scheduled to move to Bobcat Stadium by 11 a.m.

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 12 year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to founded Skyline Sports.

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