BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate didn’t have to probe much to get a glimpse of his players’ mindset as the annual rite of spring football practice loomed Wednesday morning.
Montana State’s third-year coach could see it first-hand as he watched players slip and slide through workouts on a hard, icy field.
“Most places I’ve been they would not be doing this,” Choate said. “Our guys didn’t say a word. They just went to work. That’s what I love about them.”
For Choate, the scene was symbolic of the progress his program has made since taking over for Rob Ash after the 2015 season. Rebuilding and faith have given way to foundation and expectation.
It’s the byproduct of a 5-6 season in which the Bobcats’ substantive improvement was masked by a rigorous schedule but highlighted by a second consecutive victory over Montana. More telling, as Choate noted, his program was 0-6 in its first six Big Sky Conference tries and has gone 7-3 since.
“That tells you the direction the program is heading,” he said. “We talk about the success against the University of Montana, we talk about our academic success. We’re in a very positive place.”
Choate and his staff will begin to learn more Saturday morning, when six weeks of off-and-on spring practices begin. This year’s schedule is notable for its dispersed days and the reality that spring ball doesn’t have the same urgency it once did, given that players routinely remain on campus through the summer.
Truth be told, if the NCAA were to allow programs to use their 20 allotted spring days any time between the end of a season and start of fall practice, Choate would space them out even more and eagerly bid adieu to the tradition of spring practice.
“My ideas about spring ball have changed dramatically over the last 20 years,” he said, adding later: “We’re breaking up the training block. We’ll get some good work in, some contact, let the young guys fly around and see what they can do, and let the old guys get healthy. There’s going to be some interesting battles and some guys who weren’t necessarily household names last fall who are going to be some really good Bobcats.”
That said, there will be some focal points. Most notable is improving the passing game, the one weak spot in junior starting quarterback Chris Murray’s game.
The Cats recruited Travis Jonsen, a junior college transfer who started his career at Oregon, to raise the stakes.
The plan received a setback last week when Jonsen slipped on ice and broke an ankle, sidelining him for all of spring ball. Jonsen will be in a boot through the spring but should be healed by summer, Choate said.
“I feel bad for Travis,” he said. “He’s a great kid and he’s kind of gone the yo-yo route already. He gets here, gets a fresh start, gets rolling and this thing happens. I’m frustrated that he’s not out there this spring because I’d like to see what he can do.”
The loss of one quarterback not only means more focus on Murray but an opportunity for Tucker Rovig, a 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman from Meridian, Idaho.
“Tucker Rovig is probably going, ‘OK, I’ve been waiting for my turn anyway’. When I played team sports, I loved my teammates but if a guy in front of me on the depth chart went down I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I was going to step up and make the most of it.”
As for Murray? His 1,638 total yards as a freshman were third best in MSU history and he registered 2,721 a year ago. He’s engineered two wins over Montana as a starting quarterback.
But he threw for only 145.2 yards per game, and so the presence of a touted JC transfer is hardly a subtle message about the importance of improvement of MSU is to contend for the Big Sky title and postseason.
Choate was asked how Murray has responded to the looming competition.
“I think it’s been really good for Chris Murray,” he said. “I can see a level of leadership that I haven’t seen up to this point from Chris in terms of taking charge and saying ‘this is when we’re going to throw, this is when we’re going to get together’ and being around the office and coaches a little more. There’s a little bit more of a sense of urgency.”
Otherwise, the pieces appear to be falling in place for Choate, who was pleased with his first two recruiting classes and is even happier with the 2018 class despite a relatively lean year for high schoolers in Montana. One service ranked MSU’s class third best among FCS teams nationally.
Choate is taking a steady-as-she-goes approach, but he didn’t equivocate when asked if he can sense a difference in the mindset of this team compared to his first two.
“I don’t think it’s subtle – I think it’s dramatic,” he said. “This is night and day from when we walked in here two years ago. These kids, they know. They know when it’s time to come to work. They have a good mindset, they like each other. That’s what college athletics is all about.”