BOZEMAN — In February, as he introduced Montana State’s 2017 recruiting class, Jeff Choate said it typically takes 18 to 24 months for a new culture to take shape under a new coaching staff.
As the Bobcats open fall camp Thursday in preparation for Choate’s second year at the helm, the coach said that process is ongoing. And it will be a key element in the month ahead as the team works toward a new season.
“We’re driving home and solidifying the culture that we’re trying to create, and getting everybody to that buy-in point where people know how we operate and understand the importance of doing the little things the correct way,” Choate said.
“Driving home our culture and solidifying that is certainly one of our objectives over the next 30 days.”
The Bobcats open the season Sept. 2 at Washington State. Until then, it will be an exercise in cultivating the themes around which Choate and his staff are trying to shape the program:
Toughness, accountability, eliminating any and all division in the locker room — and yes, “riding for the brand,” as Choate might say.
“Every year is a new challenge, and I know that from my years as an assistant, as well. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach. Your team is going to be in a different place than the year before,” Choate said.
“I guess maybe what I do understand better is what the needs of our team are, because I know our team better. That’s been good. I’m excited to get it going and to see the work that these guys have done over the summer and how that’s going to pay off.”
Following are five storylines to watch as fall camp commences at MSU:
1. Murray’s progress
Chris Murray assumed the starting quarterback job in the middle of last season. At the time, he was a 17-year-old true freshman.
Murray was named Big Sky Conference freshman of the year after rushing for 860 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he averaged just four pass completions per game. Whatever progress he’s made with his mechanics and footwork, the team believes, will lead to a more productive passing game and, in the end, a more complete offense.
First-year offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong and quarterbacks coach DeNarius McGhee will continue to hone Murray's wherewithal in the pocket.
“Eventually (Murray’s) got to become the face of this program, and we’ve got to continue to protect him and help him mature,” Choate said.
One player to watch is incoming freshman Tucker Rovig, who went 22-3 as the starter at Mountain View High in Meridian, Idaho.
2. Situational savvy
If Murray makes strides, it could help MSU be better in crunch time. Four of the Bobcats’ seven losses last season were by six points or less.
Consistency is the objective this year.
“You look at the games we won, we were able to close the Bryant game out with a four-minute drive, we were able to close the UC Davis game out with a four-minute drive, and we were able to close the Montana game out with a six-minute drive. So we were pretty good at closing out games when we had the lead,” Choate said.
“Where we struggled was when we had two-minute situations that we were not able to capitalize on. Understanding how to respond in situations and playing smart situational football has got to be a huge emphasis for us in fall camp.”
3. Give and take
Choate said the Bobcats will spend ample time trying to reverse the turnover plague that bedeviled them last season. After the first three games, MSU was plus-11 in turnover margin, which led the nation. By season’s end it was minus-7.
The statistical conundrum was this: Ty Gregorak’s defense had 12 takeaways through the first three games. It had just six takeaways in the final nine.
“The turnover thing obviously was a huge part of some of our failures a year ago, and we need to fix that,” Choate said. “Our ability to understand how to value the football more consistently on offense, coupled with our ability to take the ball away, I think are some things that will lead to that.
“Some maturity things with our quarterback certainly should help. Emphasizing it every day in our fundamental periods in practice, and then our ability to affect the quarterback on defense is going to have a huge correlation to our ability to force takeaways.”
4. Backfield depth
The Bobcats have solid numbers at running back, which should aid in countering the graduations of standouts Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke. In the spring, 220-pound senior Nick LaSane appeared poised to become “the lead dog,” as Choate said, among his running back peers.
But LaSane, according to a report published on the website skylinesportsmt.com, was arrested in June for allegedly driving under the influence. An athletic department spokesman said Choate is expected to address LaSane’s situation on Thursday.
This summer, Choate noted MSU’s depth at running back as a strength.
“There’s going to be good competition with Anthony Pegues and Noah James and Logan Jones back in the mix, and you’ve got Jake Roper, who had a really good spring, and Eddie Vander coming in. So we’ve got some options there,” Choate said.
“The one thing I know is you’re going to need multiple running backs. You don’t get through a season with one back because of the nature of that position.”
Roper is a Boise State transfer. Vander comes to MSU from Saddleback College in California.
5. Pass rush focus
The Bobcats lacked a consistent pass rush last season and produced just 15 sacks, the fewest in the Big Sky.
Linebacker Mac Bignell had 3.5 sacks to lead the team (he also had a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss). Grant Collins, who was moved from inside linebacker to the “Buck” rush-end position before last season, finished with just two sacks last year.
Choate identified Collins as one player who needs to raise his pass-rush prowess, among others.
“Grant is a dude there,” Choate said. “Depending on what we do with Mac, he’s a natural pass-rusher. We’ve got Tyrone Fa’anono, who for a big guy is probably our best interior pass-rusher, and I think that will help us a lot.
“Michael Jobman and Kyle Finch need to mature in that role, and Derek Marks is a very natural pass-rusher, as well. Those are some of the guys that need to take the next step for us.”