BOZEMAN — Michael Pitre is out, Bob Cole is in, and Jeff Choate says he doesn’t anticipate any more departures from Montana State’s football coaching staff — though there are never any guarantees.
“I’ll be prepared to make the next move,” Choate said Tuesday during a press conference at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. “That’s my job, to be able to look out into the future. I try not to get caught off guard.”
Considering Pitre’s reputation as a running backs coach and the inroads he has made in recent years as a recruiter in Southern California, his hiring last week at Oregon State by new Beavers coach Jonathan Smith wasn’t a surprise. His star had risen considerably during his four years with the Bobcats.
To counter Pitre’s departure, Choate was calculated in his approach. Instead of simply replacing Pitre with another running backs coach, Choate analyzed his team as it stands heading into the 2018 season and clearly recognized the best path forward.
Enter the veteran Cole — most recently an analyst at Northwestern and the offensive coordinator at Northern Illinois — as the Bobcats’ new passing game coordinator. Cole’s hiring, announced Wednesday, was made with the expectation that it would invigorate an aerial attack that has been too inconsistent during Choate’s tenure as coach.
“When you examine your program, you’ve got to look at what’s the most important thing right now for us to have success,” Choate said. “One of the things we need on offense is some swagger, and I think Bob has that quality. He’s a guy who’s seen a lot. That’s what he brings to us, a wealth of experience and knowledge.
“Because (quarterback is) such a vital position on our football team, I feel like it was wise for us to invest in someone with a lot of experience.”
It’s true that the Bobcats have placed 12th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference in passing offense in each of the past two seasons, but there’s more to Cole’s hiring than initially meets the eye. His role is clearly defined: to help Chris Murray and MSU’s quarterbacks grow into better throwers. Yet his impact could carry more weight than that.
Here are three factors to consider:
1. Offensive balance: The Bobcats’ offense has been nothing if not imbalanced. Murray’s growth as the starting quarterback has been incremental at best, though he has shown flashes of excellence as a passer. It’s a question of consistency.
As a sophomore last year, Murray became the first MSU quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. But a tantalizing prospect looms: What if MSU can pair Murray’s running skills with the ability to throw the ball on time and accurately down the field?
“We know we can run the ball. We’ve done it consistently well over the two years we’ve been here,” Choate said.
“But for us to take that next step toward contending for a conference championship and making a run in the playoffs, I think everybody knows that we’ve got to be a little bit more balanced on offense. So bringing a guy like (Cole) in, yeah, that’s a calculated move on our part to put more emphasis on that.”
MSU’s combined completion rate in the past two seasons was a mere 48 percent.
Murray will be challenged in the months ahead by transfer QB Travis Jonsen, once a touted recruit at Oregon, as well as Meridian, Idaho, product Tucker Rovig, who redshirted last season.
2. Staff development: Choate expects Cole’s hiring to have a big influence on QBs coach DeNarius McGhee.
Last season was McGhee’s first full-time go-round as a college coach, and he seemed to have a great rapport with Murray. But Cole’s addition gives McGhee, 26, the opportunity to draw from 35 years of game planning.
McGhee carved out an illustrious career as the Bobcats’ quarterback from 2010-13, but Choate believes his ceiling is even higher as a coach. Cole could prove invaluable to McGhee.
“I think it’s going to accelerate his growth tremendously, No. 1,” Choate said. “I think DeNarius is going to be a star in this business. (Cole) has a wealth of experience in a variety of different offenses and a variety of different schemes and can come in and really help a guy like DeNarius take that next step without having to go somewhere else to get it.”
3. Recruiting continuity: When Pitre departed, the assumption was that MSU would take a recruiting hit. Pitre spent a lot of time building relationships with players and coaches in Southern California, particularly in the Trinity League, an elite high school football conglomerate in the Los Angeles area.
But Choate does not expect the Bobcats to miss much of a beat in that fertile terrirtory with receivers coach Matt Miller sliding into Pitre’s role of recruiting coordinator.
“We’ve got to have a presence down there, and we will,” Choate said. “Obviously Michael’s made some connections for us and we can now step in and continue to maintain really positive relationships with the coaches and other people in the schools in the Trinity League.”
With Cole here to put his personal touch on MSU’s passing game, Miller can sink into that vital recruiting duty.
“Matt’s a highly organized, highly motivated guy,” Choate said. “Really, the recruiting piece is about discipline, organization and persistence.
“Matt is a hard worker. So it was a natural to slide him into that role, let him grow and get a little bit more responsibility.”