BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate and his Montana State coaching staff had one primary strategy for the NCAA’s first-ever early signing period for football recruiting, which begins Wednesday.
It was a simplified process of “prioritizing those early commits and getting them to the finish line,” Choate said.
To date, the Bobcats have procured more than a dozen verbal commitments based on social media declarations and various published reports. Choate said earlier this month that he expects between seven to 12 prospects to sign letters of intent, though that number could obviously change by the time the fax machine fires up Wednesday morning.
MSU’s expected in-state haul consists of linebacker Nolan Askelson of two-time reigning Class AA champion Billings Senior, running back Lane Sumner of Huntley Project, lineman Joe McElroy of Missoula Loyola and quarterback/safety Mark Estes of Kalispell Glacier.
Helena quarterback Kaleb Winterburn has also pledged a commitment to the Bobcats, as has Bozeman receiver Logan Kleinhans. Jory Choate, Jeff Choate’s son and a defensive end at Bozeman, could ink to play for his father — he and Hawks teammate Kleinhans have a joint signing event scheduled for Wednesday at 12:45 p.m. in the south gym at Bozeman High.
Among the Bobcats’ out-of-state commits are tight end Derryk Snell of Chugiak, Alaska, Los Angeles-area running backs Justin Cauley and Sherod White, and quarterback Casey Bauman of Everson, Washington.
Twin defensive backs Ty’Rese and Ty’Rhae Gibson of the L.A. area also appear poised to follow through on their verbal pledges from the summer, while junior college kicker Tristan Bailey, formerly of Wyoming, announced on Twitter last week his intent to sign with the Bobcats.
Choate hopes Wednesday will bring clarity to MSU’s evolving 2018 recruiting class.
“Once you’re committed — if you’re truly committed to us — we expect that you’ll sign on (Wednesday),” he said. “Some of the kids were open about, well, I’m committed but I still want to be able to look around. Well then you’re really not committed and that doesn’t necessarily help us.
“But I think we’ve done a good job of identifying a handful of kids that are going to stick to that, identifying the Montana kids that fit us, and then we’ve got a handful of out-of-state young men that have committed to us.”
This year marks the first time the NCAA has allowed for an early signing period for football. In years past there was only one signing day, which falls on the first Wednesday of February.
The early signing period ends Friday, at which point the recruits that do not put pen to paper will have to wait until Feb. 7 to make their respective choices.
Choate indicated that the Bobcats’ 2018 class has been (and will continue to be) thoroughly vetted, which is a bit of a diversion from his first two years as coach.
“The thing that’s crazy about this now is, we’re really now at a place where we’ve got to make tough decisions in recruiting for the first time since I’ve been here,” Choate said. “In the past it was like, ‘We’ll just take them all,’ because we (knew) we were going to have attrition.
“This will be the first team that we’ll coach here that I think we’ll get to a full roster and a full complement of scholarships. We played with 59 scholarship players (in 2017) and a lot of those guys weren’t playing, whether it was injuries or suspensions or whatever.
“So we weren’t playing with a full complement of scholarship players this last fall. This coming fall I think we will for the first time be playing 85 guys on scholarship and using 63 (scholarships) or very, very close to that. I think that speaks to the health of the program and us moving in the right direction.”
The Bobcats were unquestionably competitive while slogging through what was a difficult schedule in 2017. Three of MSU’s opponents — South Dakota State, Weber State and Kennesaw State — advanced to the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs. SDSU made it as far as the semifinals.
Montana State’s average margin of defeat in its six losses was a mere 9.7 points. There were a lot of “shoulda, coulda, woulda” moments, as Choate has said more than once.
Choate said MSU’s target areas for its 2018 recruiting class include true pass rushers, as well as those that can cover better and longer in the secondary. That, in turn, could turn close losses into victories.
And there’s more recruiting to be done down the road.
“We’ve got a number of needs that we’ve got to address,” he said. “I think if you look at us on defense and you look at where we were deficient, primarily in my mind it was on third downs and our ability to take the ball away from the opponent.
“To me that speaks to two things: It’s pressuring and confusing the quarterback and it’s having the ability to play tighter coverage. We’ve got to go find some guys that we feel like can affect the quarterback without bringing five or six guys in pressure, because that’s not really our identity.
“I think we found some young guys as the year went on that did a good job there (namely cornerbacks Tyrel Thomas and Jalen Cole) but we’ve got to add some pieces back there. Offensively we return four of our five starters on the offensive line, but I’d like to get a more mature physical guy at the guard position, and then some speed at skill.”
MSU has scheduled a 3 p.m. press conference on Wednesday to announce its early signings.