BOZEMAN – In the rapidly changing world of college football recruiting, where social media and an early-signing period have changed the landscape dramatically, success still boils down to one of the fundamentals: Relationships.
For third-year Montana State coach Jeff Choate and his staff, relationships built over months helped result in at least one of their newest recruits sticking with the Bobcats even after an FBS program swooped in at the 11th hour to offer a scholarship.
Case in point: Offensive lineman Donny Long of Norco, California. A “very, very good football player,” Choate said, Long was offered by Arizona State and had the MSU coaches fretting until over dinner in Norco he flatly said “I’m going to be a Bobcat” before adding how much he was looking forward to cold weather.
“I think we cracked the code here,” Choate joked Wednesday in announcing the program’s 12 newest players, who join 16 who came on board in the new December early-signing period. “All we have to do is have cold weather. I think we’ve checked that one off.”
That line drew chuckles from a blue-and-gold GranTree Inn crowd of about 50, who came to hear about players they’ll be watching over the next four or five years if all goes as planned. They also saw a video showcasing MSU’s Brawl of the Wild win over Montana – Choate’s second straight over the team from “over the hill” – and highlights of each new recruit.
For Choate, his third recruiting class reflects the upward mobility of his brief time in Bozeman. He noted that in his first year the Bobcats played 11 true freshmen and the number increased to 13 a year ago as the Cats forged a 5-6 season after going 4-7 in his debut; this season, he said, he expects that number to decrease due to experience and maturity in the program.
Choate added that the momentum MSU appears to be building has enabled the Cats to shift their recruiting message as well.
“One, it’s ‘Come win championships at Montana State’, not ‘Help us build at Montana State’,” he said. “I think that resonated. I think that connected to a lot of guys.”
“Another thing is we have a heck of a product to sell here. Reality so far exceeds expectations (on visits). When (recruits) leave Bozeman, they always think, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool’.”
The latest additions to the 2018 class are four linemen, two wide receivers, two defensive backs, two tailbacks, tight end Treyton Pickering of Sunburst and fullback Blake Allred of Billings Senior. The two Montanans join seven who signed in December.
“It’s nice for us to take care of the Montana kids first,” Choate said, “so we saw maybe a little more Montana flavor in the early signing period.”
Another feature in this class is attention to the Seattle area. It is no accident, given that Choate spent two years as an assistant coach at Washington and grew up in northern Idaho. He also noted the easy access between the Puget Sound region and Bozeman, plus the strong alumni base MSU has there.
Wide receiver Mekhi Metcalf (Seattle), whose father, Eric, was a five-time NFL Pro Bowler, safety Malik Putney (Tacoma) and running back Isaiah Ifanse (Bellevue) are from the Puget Sound area. Ifanse is the 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year for Washington and a three-star recruit.
Defensive lineman Seer Deines is from Connell, Washington, a small agricultural community north of the Tri-Cities.
They join UW transfer Bryce Sterk, a defensive lineman, and quarterback Casey Bauman of Somas. Both were part of a December haul that included touted quarterback Travis Jonsen, a junior college player who left Oregon after losing the starting job to former Bobcat Dakota Prukop.
“From the day I got here, I felt like that’s an area we’re missing on,” Choate said of Seattle. “Having spent two years over there recruiting, I think there’s a lot of talent. There’s a lot of reasons to be in Seattle. I think we could be aggressive over there.”
The Bobcats will have competition west of the Cascades. The return of Idaho to the Big Sky Conference gives MSU a kindred spirit with a program Choate described as having “a similar blueprint”.
“I think that’s a team we’ll run into a lot, I really do,” he said. “It’ll be fun. Hopefully you get the sense that one thing I’m looking for is competition. This is the only way I get to compete any more. They don’t let me play football anymore. I get the opportunity to go out and compete head to head with people, and there’s a strategy involved.
"I love this process.”
In addition to announcing the recruiting class, Choate also revealed a unique spring football schedule that commences March 3 and concludes more than a month later, with significant breaks in between. The Spring Game is set for April 7.