BOZEMAN, Montana — As Brent Vigen enters his second season leading Montana State, the questions are much different than entering the primary season of his first head coaching gig.
Jeff Choate hasn’t coached a game at Montana State since 2019. And since Choate helped MSU to its first Final 4 appearance within the FCS playoffs since 1984, Montana State has won 12 more games, advanced to a second straight national semifinal and played for the national title for the primary time in 37 years.
Last yr’s Bobcats surged all of the solution to Frisco, Texas led by a stout senior class almost entirely recruited by their former head coach and highlighted by a pair of defenders who ultimately had their names called within the NFL Draft.
Atlanta Falcon Troy Andersen and Los Angeles Ram Daniel Hardy are only two of the graduates from top-of-the-line senior classes at school history. Any program, any level would have a challenge in trying to interchange probably the most diverse pure athlete within the country (Andersen), the leading sack artist within the Big Sky Conference (Hardy) plus physically dominant defensive tackle Chase Benson, All-American offensive linemen Lewis Kidd and Taylor Tuiasosopo, LA Rams-bound free agent signee wide receiver Lance McCutcheon and Atlanta free agent signee Tre Webb.
Yet the wealth of talent Choate delivered to Bozeman still has many layers. Vigen proved last season he can provide a gradual hand. And that’s why Montana State, the preseason No. 4 team within the nation, enters 2022 with loads of confidence despite such notable roster losses.
“I believe in regards to the way the national championship game went greater than the playoff run and we wish to get back there,” Montana State senior inside linebacker Callahan O’Reilly said, referring to the 38-10 loss to North Dakota State within the FCS title game that overshadowed arguably the best playoff run at school history. “Train like you might be in last, play such as you’re in first. Train motivated by those missed opportunities, play like we did within the playoffs.
“I believe in regards to the loss greater than the high of the run but it surely also gives us the arrogance that we’ve been there, we’ve played so long, we talked about national championship, national championship and now that we have now been there, it’s a more achievable goal.”
For Montana State over the past five years — and to be honest, for a lot of the twenty first century — success has began and ended with the standard of play up front. Choate built the Bobcats from the trenches out. MSU has had one of the crucial dominant run games within the Big Sky and the FCS over the past six years.
Loads of young talent still highlights the roster. But can Montana State match its level from a season ago within the trenches? And given the way in which the Bobcats got bullied at the purpose of attack by North Dakota State in a 38-10 national championship game loss, matching last yr’s level won’t be adequate.
“You look back at that game and take a look at it with a critical eye, you understand that we didn’t win the road of scrimmage battle either way,” Vigen said. “We just cant’ change who we’re right away. So that you charge our guys to see how much greater and stronger can we get from January to August?
“I believe it’s about getting greater and stronger. How do you try this? Recruiting, development, recruiting, development, competition. I believe we have now more of that, the competition pice on the o-line and d-line. That’s what ultimately brings the perfect out of any one in all these individuals.
“Wherever we’re at, we’re at without delay and we have now to do the perfect with what we have now. That game was a learning opportunity for us, it was disappointing but we’ve definitely moved on from it as well.”
You would possibly’ve already guessed that two of probably the most intriguing position groups to observe entering the 2022 season at Montana State are along the fronts.
Consider Tommy Mellott’s return for a much-anticipated sophomore yr after quarterbacking the Bobcats to the title game in his first three profession starts (all within the postseason) and the pending health (or lack there of) of All-American running back Isaiah Ifanse and MSU has plenty to iron out before its September 3 opener against McNeese State in Bozeman.
3. Front seven defensively
To list the names again could be redundant, even though it’s definitely value mentioning Amandre Williams, a talented, smooth defensive end who got here to Montana State as one in all Choate’s several transfers from Washington included within the list of losses.
The query of the off-season – how does Montana State replace Troy Andersen? The reply: you don’t.
Last yr in a 24-20 win at Eastern Washington, one in all nine straight victories by MSU, Andersen was tasked with covering EWU All-American wide receiver Talolo Limu-Jones. All Andersen did was erase the long run NFL wide receiver from the sport while still supporting his front seven teammates within the run game as well.
Nobody else can try this, possibly ever within the Big Sky Conference.
“There isn’t a replacing Troy,” O’Reilly said on Montana State’s media day on August 5. “We will all take from him his preparation and dealing at a high level and we are able to all work together to interchange a man like that.”
The highest candidates to take reps next to O’Reilly — a Bozeman native who was named to the preseason All-Big Sky defense — are junior Nolan Askelson and sophomore Danny Uluilakepa. Redshirt freshman Alex Johnson also got elevated reps in the course of the spring.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Askelson is a Billings Senior product and former Montana Class AA Defensive MVP. He began six games as a redshirt freshman in 2019 but missed all but two games last yr with a serious knee injury. He enters his junior yr with 47 tackles in his profession. He had five tackles and a sack against Wyoming plus six more tackles the subsequent week against Drake before his season ended abruptly.
Uluilakepa is a former King County player of the yr from the Seattle Area who’s been highly regarded when healthy since stepping on campus. But he missed the entire spring.
Up front, Brody Grebe already has enormous expectations on the sting. The Melstone, Montana native had 5.5 sacks in spot duty last season. Despite never starting a game, he was a preseason All-Big Sky selection, mirroring the identical honor for Mellott on offense.
He might be book-ended by a mix of juniors Ben Seymour and David Alston. Seymour, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder with anything but prototype size, had 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss after transferring from the College of the Canyons. Alston, a former Nebraska transfer with exactly prototype size at 6-4, 245 kilos, had five tackles and half a sack in his first season at MSU.
On the inside, MSU must replace Benson, a weight room machine who could power clean greater than 400 kilos and bench press 1 / 4 ton. But a wide range of physically talented younger players got loads of motion last season, including San Diego native sophomores Sebastian Valdez and Blake Schmidt.
Vigen praised each for his or her off-season work.
“Size, strength, confidence,” Vigen said. “They each emerged in their very own way last fall. But now, I believe they saw this chance. Guys inside that defensive position room have to step up. We lost some really beneficial players but that doesn’t mean we’d like to decelerate.”
Valdez is a physical marvel, a 6-foot-3, 285-pounder with low body fat and lots of muscle mass. Despite playing a disruptive, non-playmaking role last season, the person his teammates call “Sea Bass” rolled up 38 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss during his freshman season. He signed with MSU in February of 2020 so last fall was actually his second yr at school regardless that it was his first yr playing college football.
Schmidt, who also prepped at Monte Vista High outside of San Diego, was highly recruited and really a yr older than Valdez. But he redshirted. He contributed 12 tackles last season. Now he’s up over 280 kilos as well and is chasing Chase Benson’s school power clean record.
“Those two specifically have developed a bunch physically and in experience,” Vigen said when asked in regards to the Monte Vista twosome. “Nature takes its course with most of our guys but you may see of their state of mind that ‘it’s my time to step up.’
Junior Blake Hehl may even get loads of reps, especially in early down situations where he thrives, as will senior Kyle Rygg, MSU’s opening day starter next to Benson last season before losing his season to a knee injury.
Redshirt freshman Zach Black also has high regard throughout the program.
“With experience comes a unique level of confidence and possibly a much bigger tool box,” Vigen said. “Those guys are more confident, they’ve more of their arsenal that they know the best way to do and now we are only going to show them loose.”
Montana State offensive line coach Brian Armstrong working with freshman tackle Titan Fleischmann/ by Brooks Nuanez
2. Offensive line
For 13 years, Montana State had one of the crucial revered assistant coaches within the region mentoring its offensive line. Jason McEndoo worked wonders under head coaches Mike Kramer and Rob Ash, mentoring a few of the perfect offensive linemen to ever play at Montana State.
One in every of Choate’s first hires was getting his fellow Montana Western alum Brian Armstrong to hitch the Bobcats after a stint as the top coach at Rocky Mountain College. Choate also recruited a bunch of highly regarded offensive linemen with the intention of getting a unit that began for multiple years together.
That was a reality through 2019 with Mitch Brott starting 50 games between the 2 tackle spots, plus Connor Wood, Zach Redd, Tuiasosopo and Kidd all starting early of their careers.
Now entering Yr 2 under Vigen (Armstrong stays the offensive line coach), the unit is at a crossroads. Kidd plays for the Latest Orleans Saints. Tuiasosopo might be a troublesome physical presence to interchange after two straight All-Big Sky campaigns. Wood transferred to Missouri. Redd decided to forego his final yr of football. T.J. Session, a starter for eight games as a redshirt freshman last fall, transferred to Cal within the off-season.
That leaves the unit with one returning starter in 6-foot, 285-pound sophomore Justus Perkins. Based on the depth chart coming out of spring ball, only senior Joe McElroy and junior Cole Sain are upper classmen expected to be on the two-deep. And neither one entered fall camp on the primary string.
“Having your stability come from the within out is significant,” Vigen said, referring to Perkins starting every game last season. The the middle is the communicator, ideally the leader. I believe that’s where Justus is at without delay. And he’s got a level of confidence.
“But he also I believe, understands that there was worked for him to do too, so we’re gonna have competition in any respect those spots.”
Montana State center Justice Perkins (65) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez
The remaining of the two-deep is anticipated to be made up of freshmen and sophomores. Rush Reimer played with Session on the shelf last yr during Reimer’s freshman yr. The 6-foot-5 sophomore out of Camas, Washington is as much as 302 kilos and is the expected starter at left tackle.
JT Reed got here to MSU for a part of a yr, spent a yr at San Mateo College, then transferred back to Montana State. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore has a robust punch and notable toughness, attributes that help him enter fall slated because the starter at left guard.
McElroy, a Missoula Loyola product who’s coming off a knee injury, is anticipated to back up Marcus Wehr, a former defensive lineman out of Billings Central who’s as much as 290 kilos on his 6-foot-2 frame and has made the transition to right guard fluidly entering his third-year sophomore campaign.
The proper tackle battle might be one in all the position battles to observe this camp. Jacob Kettles, a highly touted 6-foot-4, 295-pounder out of Lynden, Washignton, got here to MSU late as a gray shirt in 2020 after suffering a knee injury that also cost him the 2021 season. Kettles will battle Titan Fleischmann, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound redshirt freshman out of Pocatello, Idaho who has turned heads this off-season along with his aggressiveness.
“I believe it’s about determining how lots of these guys we predict, must be on the sphere,” Vigen said. “Last yr, we left fall camp and our number possibly was at six, possibly seven? I believe this yr, that number realistically, is more, eight or nine.
“So now inside that group, does that mean you’re rotating guys? Does that mean, you’re rotating guys early specifically, to get that have growing? After which not asking that unit to do things which might be incapable of. So I believe a part of fall camp is just where are our strengths? Where are areas that we probably have to protect?
1. RUNNING BACK
Isaiah Ifanse is and has been the perfect running back within the Big Sky Conference. You’ve heard us say it in print, on the Big Sky Breakdown, on ESPN radio, on SWX Montana television.
Ifanse has been a workhorse, a key cog and an intimidating, tone-setting presence out of the backfield for the reason that former Washington Gatorade Player of the Yr joined MSU ahead of the 2018 season.
Last season, the battering ram shattered Ryan Johnson’s single-season rushing record, bulldozing his solution to 1,623 yards and 10 touchdowns. He averaged a staggering 5.8 yards per carry on 280 carries, averaging 116 yards per game in the method.
He rushed for 103 yards in MSU’s opener against Wyoming, 217 on 30 carries to lift Vigen to his first Big Sky win at Portland State a number of weeks later and never relinquished his torrid pace. Ifanse finished with eight 100-yard games, two 200-yard games (he had 217 yards on 32 carries against Eastern Washington) and an array of highlight reel runs, most including a punishing ending effort.
By the tip of the season, it was clear Ifanse was not at full strength. He didn’t look healthy the week following the EWU win, a 20-13 victory over Idaho, although he managed 84 yards on nine carries. He didn’t look even 50 percent in a 29-10 drubbing by the hands of rival Montana that snapped MSU’s four-game winning streak against the Grizzlies.
But Ifanse found a solution to bounce back, rushing 28 times for 176 yards in a 26-7 win over UT Martin within the second round of the playoffs. His 105-yard effort in a 42-19 win at Sam Houston was a bit skewed; he averaged 2.7 yards per carry on 23 of his carries yet surpassed the century mark yet again due to a 42-yard touchdown run where he broke into open space and did his best to burst into the end-zone.
Ifanse never looked dangerous again, missing MSU’s semifinal win over South Dakota State and contributing mildly in MSU’s loss to NDSU within the national championship game. He had off-season surgery, missed spring ball and is out for fall camp.
“He’s on the back half of his recovery, the back side of his recovery and we’re in a month to month mode, truthfully without delay,” Vigen said. “He’s working real hard though. He’s been real diligent about his recovery. His recovery, his surgery going back to late winter got pushed back due to the timing of the season finish. He wouldn’t trade that. He got here back and played in that championship game for good reason. We’re working through that and I think he’ll be back in some unspecified time in the future in time. It should probably be on a monthly basis without delay that we update that situation.”
That’s all to say replacing that form of production is not any small task. But Montana State knew this example was coming. So the improved health of returners like Elijah Elliott and Lane Sumner, the continued development of former walk-on Garrett Coon and the addition of San Diego State transfer Kaegun Williams together with incoming freshman Jared White are all a part of the plan to interchange Ifanse’s insane production, particularly early within the season.
“We usually are not just counting on filling the void with help from the surface with Kaegun and Jared; you furthermore may have to take a look at Elijah and Lane, neither of them were really healthy last yr. Lane got hurt against Wyoming and was really never the identical. Elijah hadn’t had some ups and downs,” Vigen said. “So it starts with those two. They usually each bring various things to the table. So it’s gonna must be a technique or one other by committee.”
Sumner has been quietly been a productive player during his Bobcat profession. The previous Montana Class B 100-meter state champion shouldn’t be “faster than he looks” like so many appear to say; in reality, he’s just plain fast. The 5-foot-8, 192-pound junior also has good vision and burst. He rushed for 424 yards and five touchdowns in the course of the 2019 season before battling injuries all yr in 2021. He managed just 40 carries for 141 yards (3.5 yards per carry) in seven games last season.
Montana State running back Elijah Elliott (13) evades an Idaho defender/by Brooks Nuanez
Elliott flashed during his redshirt yr that also happened to coincide with the cancelled Covid-19 2020 season. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder was expected to be Ifanse’s primary backup after showing well during fall ball in 2020 and last spring. He also battled injuries, but still finished his freshman yr with 472 yards from scrimmage, including 319 on the bottom. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and ranked fourth on the squad with 16 catches.
His first profession 100-yard effort got here in a 40-7 win thrashing of Northern Colorado; the ‘Cats rushed for 276 yards that day and Ifanse went over the century mark too, ending with 114 yards to Elliott’s 107.
Coon is the largest of the group. The 6-foot, 205-pounder runs behind his pads and isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder. He showed toughness as one in all the first backs getting carries during spring football with Ifanse on the shelf and Williams nor White yet on campus. The 2019 Wyoming Gatorade Player of the Yr played in only two games last season.
Williams is a 5-foot-9, 195-pound speedster from Cedar Hill, Texas. He rushed for 268 yards and two touchdowns at San Diego State in 2021. The graduate transfer rushed for 635 years over the past 4 seasons and five years spent at SDSU.
He rolled up greater than 3,800 yards from scrimmage and scored 43 touchdowns in his three years as a dual-threat running back at Cedar Hill High, earning him a rating because the seventh-best all-purpose running back recruit within the country based on Rivals.com.
White is a 5-foot-10, 195-pounder who signed with Montana State late in the method this past February. The ‘Cats played in White’s hometown (Frisco, Texas) on January 8. White first heard from MSU January 24. By February 2, he was signed and is anticipated to battle for carries. He rushed for 1,871 yards and scored 26 touchdowns at 5A Wakeland High. He was the leading rusher within the Dallas area in 5A.
“We leaned very heavily on Isaiah in every which way last yr, and that was partially because those two (Sumner, Elliott) just didn’t have the variety of seasons from a health perspective that we thought we’d hoped,” Vigen said. “I believe those two are really vital.
“Garrett Coon had a very good spring so he mustn’t go unnoticed either. So we got five guys there. So I feel a lot better. We feel a lot better about our depth at that position.”