All 95 Bobcats who participated in Jeff Choate’s first fall camp at Montana State would tell you the same thing: the bar, at least in terms of toughness and physicality, has been raised.
On Wednesday, the Bobcats officially wrapped up its 22-practice, 18-day fall camp with MSU’s annual media day. Over the last three weeks, Choate and his staff went to work installing new schemes on both sides of the ball, all the while harping on fundamentals and trying to cultivate an edgy attitude.
“We got a lot out of this camp,” Montana State senior captain running back Chad Newell said on Monday, MSU’s last official practice before Tuesday’s ‘mock game’. “Conditioning, we came a long way as far as being in game shape. I think we are going to be prepared more than we’ve ever been in that phase of the game. We will be ready in the fourth quarter. Mentally, I think we started to understand what it means to practice like champions every day, what kind of energy it requires, what it takes to really get to the next level. We are starting to grasp that as a team.”
“This camp was physical,” added senior tight end Austin Barth. “I’ve had a lot of former players call up and ask how camp is going and it was just so much more physical and more demanding this year. That’s going to make us that much better. We are going to be that team that punches you in the face this year and this camp set us up for that.”
Most of Montana State’s seniors showed up at media day sporting new haircuts and freshly shaved mustaches. The Bobcats seemed in a jovial and optimistic mood given that Wednesday marked just the third day off since camp opened on August 6. Following a photo session and interviews, Choate said the team would have “role call meetings” in which the coaching staff sat down each player and gave them a defined role for the season, whether as a scout team player who will redshirt, a varsity player who will not travel or a part of MSU’s top 58 players who will suit for every game, home or away.
On Thursday and Friday, Choate said Montana State will have “bonus Tuesday and bonus Wednesday practices” similar to the sessions that will play out during a normal game week. Saturday is a day off before MSU reports back Sunday to fully dive into game week. Montana State officially opens the Choate era on Thursday, September 1 at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow against the Idaho Vandals.
“I go into every game with the expectation to win and I think that’s the mentality we have as a team,” said Newell, who earned third-team All-Big Sky Conference honors last season after rushing for 12 touchdowns. “There’s nobody with doubt in their mind right now what we are going to do this year. I think the expectation is the work we put in is going to pay off. That will show up on September 1.”
While most of his players praised Choate for the culture change he has planted the seed for and the way camp was conducted, Choate had a critical view.
“I have about 14 pages of things I want to tweak and change,” Choate said. “Going through it the first time, there’s a lot of moving parts, things like Family Fun Day, President’s dinner, things that jump on you at the 11th hour after you spend all this time planning the camp. Now I know this is there. I always try to pay attention to compartmentalizing, not wasting our kids’ time, not wasting our coaches’ time.”
Choate has been a football coach for more than 20 years, cutting his teeth under former Montana Grizzlies head coaches Mick Dennehy and Mick Delaney during their time at Montana Western. In 1994, Choate earned his first head coaching job at Challis (Idaho) High. He made stops in Twin Falls and Post Falls before jumping into the college ranks as a graduate assistant for Dennehy at Utah State in 2002.
By 2003, he earned the special teams coordinator position for the Aggies, sparking a rise through the FBS ranks that included stops at Boise State, Washington State, Florida and Washington. But September 1 will mark Choate’s first game as a head coach since 2001 and is first time ever stalking the sidelines at the helm for a college football team. The Saint Maries, Idaho will make his debut in a venue where he grew up growing college football.
“Being from North Idaho, it was a big afternoon when you got to go see the Kamiah kid (former quarterback Ken Hobart) go sling it around the dome or watch a Montana State alum (Dennis Erickson) coach the Vandals,” Choate said at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, Utah in July. “Back in those days, the Kibbie Dome was packed every afternoon. Those are some of my earlier memories that is what college football is.”
The Vandals are coming off a 4-8 season, the best in Paul Petrino’s three seasons as UI’s head coach. The Vandals won just one game in each of Petrino’s first two seasons. The Butte native and former Carroll College quarterback is the son of former Carroll head coach Bob Petrino. Like Choate, he served as a position coach in the FBS for years — from 1995 until 2012 to be exact — before making his head coaching debut.
Petrino’s fourth Vandal team is expected to be competitive in the Sun Belt, a league that did not renew Idaho’s membership in the off-season. UI will rejoin the Big Sky before the 2018 season as a football-playing member after joining the league in all other sports in 2014.
“They are a senior-laden team and the one thing I know is anyone who has stuck around that place for four years is tough,” Choate said. “Coach Petrino is going to demand a certain level of toughness and discipline. They believe, and rightfully so, that they’ve positioned themselves for an excellent season.”
Choate said he and his staff spent three hours breaking down Idaho film on Sunday afternoon. Tuesday and Wednesday, the Bobcat players started studying the Vandals.
During Rob Ash’s tenure, MSU’s former head coach won more games (70) than anyone in school history. The Bobcats finished in the top 20 of the FCS polls on four occasions, including three straight finishes in the top seven. MSU won three straight Big Sky Conference titles for the first time in school history between 2010 and 2012. MSU qualified for the playoffs four times in five years.
Last season, Montana State endured its first losing season in 14 years, culminating with a 54-35 loss to rival Montana in Bozeman. MSU’s seventh loss in nine years to the Griz culminated in Ash’s swift firing less than 48 hours after the dust settled.
Despite MSU’s recent success, the Bobcats have almost no outside expectations entering 2016. Montana State is picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big Sky by every outlet in the league and across the FCS.
“It made a lot of people mad,” Barth said. “We have a lot of people coming back from an amazing offense and our defense is returning so many guys and they’ve learned so much. (Defensive coordinator) Coach (Ty) Gregorak has done so much for the defense. I think people are underestimating us. I think that’s perfect for us. We don’t have that target on us anymore. We will go out and show that we are still a very good team.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.