Kane Ioane has seen it all at Montana State, from when the football program was erased like a chalkboard and rebuilt from scratch when he came in as a freshman in 2000, all the way to 2012 when it won more games than it had in nearly 30 years.
Ioane is one of the Bobcats’ best-ever defensive players, and the only four-time All-American in school history. Spring ball has begun in Bozeman, and the 2013 season will mark Ioane’s 10th year as an MSU assistant coach, and his fifth as linebackers coach under coordinator Jamie Marshall. Ioane joined Mike Kramer’s staff right after his playing career, and stayed on when Rob Ash took over as coach in 2007.
MSU went 0-11 in Ioane's freshman year in 2000. But in the past three seasons under Ash, the Bobcats have won 30 games and made the playoffs each time. Last year’s 11-2 finish was the second-best in school history, but it ended the same way for the second straight year -- with a quarterfinal playoff loss to Sam Houston State.
Ioane, a former standout at Billings Skyview High School, was in his hometown last week for the annual Rocky Mountain College Pigskin Classic coaches clinic. On Friday I sat down with him for an extensive interview, during which Ioane discussed how far MSU has come since his playing days, the expectation for his returning linebackers, getting over the hump in the playoffs, and much more.
Below is the full transcript of the interview. Read on:
FIRST OF ALL, TALK ABOUT THE OFFESEASON AND HOW IT’S BEEN GOING SO FAR
The offseason’s been going good. It’s going fast. Obviously recruiting season eats up January, but as far as the players are concerned they’ve been at it since they got back to school for the second semester. They got back for the first day of classes and the very next morning they were hitting it hard as far as running, lifting, and have been on a pretty good regimen with our strength coach, Alex Wilcox, from that point on. We just got done with testing last week -- as far as lifting tests and running tests before spring break -- and the guys look great. They put up some good numbers. It looked to me that everyone improved in some area one way or the other, which is always what you’re looking for. But it’s going fast. It always does. We’ll be in the fall before you know it.”
WHERE IS THE EXCITEMENT LEVEL RIGHT NOW, ESPECIALLY AFTER WINNING 11 GAMES LAST SEASON?
“The excitement level has been high since I’ve been around, and I’ve been here a long time now. It’s exciting for the fans, the campus, the community … everywhere you go people are already asking about next season. Going into the season I know the expectations are going to be very high. We do have a lot of guys coming back. And those guys are extremely excited. They feel like they didn’t achieve as much as they wanted to last season, and that’s a great thing to have, opposed to that feeling of being satisfied with what we’ve done the past three years. That’s not what you want. You want guys who stay hungry. And this group coming up is still hungry, and they know that there’s still work to be done. That’s how they attacked the offseason, and it’s fun to see.”
WHEN YOU JOINED THE BOBCATS AS A PLAYER, THEY WERE IN REBUILD MODE. SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU TO SEE HOW FAR THINGS HAVE COME?
“It’s awesome. Being able to stand out there last year during those night playoff games was amazing. It’s hard to reflect when you’re in the moment like that, but I made sure I did. We’ve come a long ways since I first stepped foot on campus in the fall of 2000. And it’s a tribute to all the guys that have come along through those years that have helped build this thing.
“You could list off a tremendous group of names, players and coaches that have helped get this program to where it is now. And all those guys can look back at where we’re at and be very proud of what this program has accomplished. It’s not only the group of kids that went out and played the games and won the (Big Sky Conference) championship these past three years, but the guys that paved the path for them can be very proud of what they helped build.”
DEFENSIVELY SPEAKING, HOW HAPPY ARE YOU OF THE WAY THINGS HAVE COME TOGETHER SINCE YOU JOINED THE COACHING STAFF?
“When I was a player here, that, to me, is what helped establish the program. We really wanted to set the tone and set the tempo, and that tradition has carried on through these years. It’s been fun to see how regardless of the coaching staff changeover, it didn’t matter. The attitude of defense-first, defense wins games and defense wins championships, that attitude maintained within the program, within the players and within the new coaching staff that came in. And we’ve continued that during the past (seven) years under coach Ash and coach (Jamie) Marshall, our defensive coordinator. He’s really taken to that, and the sky’s the limit with where we can continue to go.”
HOW CAN YOU DESCRIBE COACH MARSHALL’S DEFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY AND VISION?
“We want to be known as a very physical, aggressive style of defense, but very sound. We’re not going to out-scheme you as far as Xs and Os, and we’re not going to try to trick you into going one way or the other. We’re going to be very fundamentally sound and be very aggressive and physical. And by the end of four quarters, we want you to know that you just played against a great defense. Period.
“As far as coach Marshall is concerned, and the entire defensive staff, we’re a ‘quarters’ team now. We’ve kind of progressed. We were a Cover-2 early in his tenure, but now we’ve progressed into more of a quarters or Cover-1 defense. And that’s what I love. That’s what I played when I was (at MSU). That’s what we did. And it’s fun to see again now, because it matches our personnel well. And we’re going to continue with that. One of our main things is to be simple and to allow our players to play fast.”
COACH ASH HAS SAID A LOT OF IT IS PREDICATED ON GETTING FOUR-MAN PRESSURE UP FRONT WITHOUT A LOT OF BLITZING. IS THAT HOW YOU SEE THINGS GOING NEXT YEAR?
“I would think. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That old phrase. But at the same time, we had some guys up front last year. We had three very good players. Four, really, all the way around. It was really a five- or six-man rotation, including the likes of Caleb Schreibeis, a Buck Buchanan winner, and Zach Minter, a two-time All-American three-technique.
“When you lose guys like that you might have to make some adjustments here and there. I think the scheme will remain the same and the philosophy will remain the same, but we’ve just got to plug some guys in and maybe do some different things on third down in particular to adjust to the personnel we have now. But with the likes of Brad Daly and whatnot, we’ll still be aggressive with our front-four and we’ll still be able to create some pressure with our four-man rush.”
YOU WERE AN ALL-AMERICAN AND A BIG SKY DEFENSIVE MVP, BUT WHAT DID IT MEAN FOR THE PROGRAM TO HAVE CALEB SCHREIBEIS WIN ITS FIRST BUCK BUCHANAN AWARD?
“It was awesome for the entire program, and awesome for our defense, obviously. It says a lot about Caleb as far as the player that he developed himself into as a walk-on kid out of Billings. And that’s another neat thing about it for me personally. He’s a Billings kid. And to come in and walk on and just progress the way he did over the course of his five-year career was amazing. You wouldn’t be able to find a single coach or a single player during Caleb’s freshman or sophomore year who could have picked him out and go, ‘He’s going to be a Buck Buchanan winner.’ But Caleb in his own mind made that decision that he was going to be great.
“That’s what separates great players from good players or just average every-day guys. Caleb had that mindset from Day 1 and went out and did it. As a former defensive player and a former Big Sky MVP, it was awesome to see and be around a kid like that. He was going to be great, and he didn’t care what anyone else thought. He went out in a big way and did it.”
AS LINEBACKERS COACH, YOU HAVE A BIG VOID TO FILL WITH THE LOSS OF JODY OWENS. HOW WILL YOU FILL THOSE SHOES?
“Jody … we’re going to miss him tremendously. He was an absolute stud for me for four years. And it goes back to the same things we talked about with Caleb. The same things. (Owens) had a mindset as a young player coming up with the likes of Bobby Daly and Jeff Price in front of him, and he watched how they worked and bought in very early as a young freshman. He wanted to be like Bobby Daly and those guys, but even better. And he worked his tail off for four years. And at the end of the day, I consider him to be one of the best to ever play, and some may argue he IS the best linebacker to ever play at our school. He put himself in there. And we will miss him. He was a dynamic player who made plays within our scheme, and he was also able to make plays that weren’t necessarily designed for him to make. He just made them.
“That’s what makes great players. And watching (video) though the offseason and trying to get better as a coaching staff and trying to make adjustments, you noticed that guy on film. And you’re going, ‘Wow. We’re going to miss him.’ So to say we’re going to replace Jody, we’re not. But what we will have is guys step up in that role and develop into great players themselves. Alex Singleton is the guy that’s going to be penciled in there as the ‘Will’ linebacker. You saw him make plays early in his career in a substitute role. And so now in that starting role I’m hoping he’ll continue to progress, and that he will be a playmaker for us this year.”
ANALYZE THE LINEBACKER CORPS YOUR HAVE RETURNING FOR 2013
“I’m very fortunate. I lose a great one but I retain five or six really good ones that have the potential to be a great group. We may not necessarily have that one dynamic guy that gets all the accolades, but we’re going to have a group that’s going to be phenomenal. It’s going to be great.
“Starting with our middle guy, Na’a Moeakiola to me is one of the most underrated players in the Big Sky Conference. For him to be honorable mention all-conference, to me was … granted with 13 teams now it’s harder to make those teams. And to be named honorable mention means he gained some respect. But he’s going to use that as a little extra fuel to his fire. And I foresee great things for him, because he’s our leader in this group, not just vocally but doing it on the field. He gets all 11 guys on the defense lined up. He’s our defensive quarterback. He did a tremendous job of that last year.
“With (Moeakiola), we already talked about Alex (Singleton) and his potential to be a great player. And we have our two ‘Sam’ backers, Cole Moore and Aleksei Grosulak. As far as being underrated, they’re right there as well. Unfortunately they play a position where the plays don’t necessarily come to them all the time, but they were the most consistent guys on our defense as far as just doing their job every single down. That’s them to a ‘T.’ Aleksei Grosulak is one of the most consistent guys I’ve ever been around. He works his tail off, and everyday he’s consistent. When the play comes to him he makes the play and does his job. And Cole Moore is in that same mold. Those two guys are very hungry as far as making a name for themselves. And Aleksei I know wants to get back to when he was our defensive MVP as a redshirt freshman. He has the potential to do that.
“Behind them we still have a guy named Mike Foster, who we saw in a big-time special teams role last year. He played on all four special teams and was an absolute stud for us. He’s battling a shoulder injury right now and had surgery in the offseason, but he will be fine come next fall. So I look forward to big things out of him as well.
“And then we have some young guys kind of waiting in the wings, that this spring will be a telling tale for them as far as whether they can push some of these older guys for playing time. Fe’ao Vunipola, for example, looked very good in our 40-yard sprints and agilities and in the weight room, and he’s a good-looking kid. But he’s got to prove to me that he can play consistently before he’s going to put pressure on these older guys that I know and trust on the field on Saturdays.”
YOU SEE SEVERAL BOBCAT PLAYERS SPORTING A ‘NO QUESTION’ LOGO ON THEIR TAPE ON GAME DAYS. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
“The ‘No Question’ came about going into the 2010 season when our linebacking crew had suffered some injuries. Clay Bignell missed the end of the 2009 season and didn’t practice through the spring, Jody was still a relative unknown as far as the conference was concerned, and we had some young guys. Aleksei was a redshirt freshman. And so leading into that year, our defense was pretty solid -- minus, according to everyone else, our linebacking corps. We were the question mark of the defense. And so I flipped that, and we made it to where we weren’t going to be a question. We were going to be no question. It’s a statement of confidence. It’s a statement of there being no doubt. So I used it as motivation for the group. We were going to put a slash through that big question mark and we’re going to be a statement of utmost confidence.
“It’s part of our swagger now. It’s been our group swagger since 2010, and we talk about it all the time. It’s one of the first things we cover when the linebackers step on campus. We say, ‘You’re going to walk around here with that linebacker swagger.’ And the guys love it. Before the game we put ‘No Question’ on their tape just to remind them, and if something goes wrong in the game they can look at that and get that confidence back in their eye. It’s gone from just our group to the whole team. They ask me how they can be a part of it, and it’s simple. Have some swagger and some confidence. So you see a lot of the team wearing that ‘No Question’ stuff around.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE NEW SEASON, IN WHAT AREAS DOES THE DEFENSE NEED TO IMPROVE THE MOST?
“Defensively, where we can still gain ground is with takeaways. We still have not been very good statistically as far as takeaways and turnover margin as a team. And as a defense we can help that by getting as many takeaways as possible. We have still not become that ball-hawking defense I would like us to be. Run-defense-wise we made drastic improvements from the previous year, and from 2010 until now we’ve made incredible improvements as far as stopping the run.
“First and foremost, that’s what you have to do is a defense, stop the run. Last year I thought we did a good job of that, but we’re still not to the point where we’re a national championship defense yet. Against Stony Brook we had a helluva game. We did a very good job there. Sam Houston State … we still haven’t solved that riddle. We’ve made improvements but we still haven’t consistently stopped the very good teams that we’ve faced. That’s where I think we can make the biggest jump and the biggest improvements, when we get into those playoff games playing the top five teams in the country, we’ve got to be able to get consistent stops and get our offense the ball as much as we possibly can.”
YOU MENTIONED SAM HOUSTON STATE. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE OPTION-STYLE RUNNING GAME THAT’S SO HARD TO CONTAIN?
“Sam Houston, in particular, it’s about the guys they have running the offense for them and the weapons they have carrying the football. They make it that much harder. They do a great job of deception as far as the motions and backs going this way and that way and messing with your eyes. But they also have guys that can get to the edge on you. And if you aren’t disciplined with your eyes and you take a step in the wrong direction, or if you don’t get off a block and one guy mis-fits the play, they can go 60 or 70 yards. And the trigger-man was huge. (Brian) Bell’s ability to pass the ball and be a passing threat was huge for them against us this year. Against the run, we did a lot better job. (Tim) Flanders got off a little bit more than he did the previous year, but I thought we kept the others guys in check for the most part. And they didn’t gash us for the big yards like they did the previous year, and didn’t hit us for 60 and 70 one play at a time. But they did in the passing game, and for Bell to be able to add that to his repertoire, that made it hard.
“An offense like that, what it is it’s a numbers game. They’ve got the ability to hand it to Flanders up the middle, so you’ve got to have a guy there. They’ve also got the ability for Flanders to bounce it outside the tackle, so your defensive end not only has to be responsibly to take away Flanders, but also be aware of the quarterback that can run the football. It’s a numbers game, and as a coach you have to figure out how to match the numbers. Schematically it makes it harder. It’s fun though. Playing a team like that, it makes you earn your money as a coach.”
HAVING SAID THAT, NORTH DAKOTA STATE BEAT SAM HOUSTON STATE TWO STRAIGHT YEARS FOR THE NATIONAL TITLE. HOW HAS NDSU BEEN ABLE TO FIGURE THEM OUT?
“They have found a way. Their front seven has been absolutely stout. And they’re very sound. They don’t do anything too fancy by any means, but they’re very sound and they’ve matched the numbers. They’re gap sound against the run, and they have the guys on the back end to match up with the receivers as well. And what’s killed Sam Houston against those guys the last two years has been turnovers. North Dakota State’s gotten big turnovers in big situations, and they were able to capitalize on that. Plus, they’ve kept Sam Houston off the field.
“If you can keep that offense off the field, you’re in that much better shape and the less chance they have of hitting a big one on you. So North Dakota State has also done a great job of controlling the football and putting points on the board. It’s a full team effort to be able to stop (Sam Houston State). Your defense has got to be sound, and offensively you have to be able to control the clock and keep the ball away from him.”
EVEN THOUGH YOU’RE A DEFENSIVE COACH, I WANT TO GET YOUR OPINION OF DeNARIUS McGHEE. WHAT HAS HE MEANT TO THE PROGRAM?
“DeNarius has been awesome since he came on campus. Even as a scout-team quarterback, you could see there was something different about him. He comes out there, and you talk about being consistent. He’s loud, he’s energetic, he’s charismatic. And he’s that way all the time. That’s DeNarius. If you see DeNarius today he’ll be the same as he is on the football field. And you can see that. He’s got that charisma and that ‘it’ factor as far as being a quarterback. And he’s progressively gotten better year-in and year-out. We’re looking forward to big things again out of him. He’s his biggest critic. He can also be his biggest fan, but he’s a humble kid, and he understands that it takes all 11 guys to win. And he wants the best out of his teammates, and he makes his teammates better. He’s been absolutely great for this program.
“People are always going to compare DeNarius and Travis Lulay. That’s just going to be the obvious comparison. Who was better or who was this or that. But to me it’s a different time and a completely different deal. Lulay came into a different situation than DeNarius came into. We were successful when DeNarius took over. He helped us get over the hump of being mediocre. Travis, on the other hand, helped us get over the 0-11 and 5-6 seasons, and beating the Grizzlies three out of the four years that he was here and becoming Big Sky champs. To compare them, I think it’s different. As always when you compare great players, it’s different eras and different times. As far as impact on the program, both of them obviously had a tremendous impact.
“As far as DeNarius being an African-American quarterback at Montana State Unversity, that’s a first. And it’s also a huge, huge thing. He’s going to go down as obviously one of the all-time greats for a number of reasons, not just for his play on the field, but for what he’s done off the field as well.”
FINALLY, WHAT DO YOU THINK IT WILL TAKE TO GET OVER THE HUMP AND GO DEEPER IN THE PLAYOFFS?
“That is the next step for this program. That’s where we have to take this program, or else we’re going to be stuck with the stigma of being a great regular-season team that can’t win the big one. And it takes an attitude of never being satisfied. Our guys have got to take that into the weight room, which I think they’ve done. And as far as the offseason, they’ve got to continue it through the summer months, and through spring ball I’m going to continue to harp on them every day.
“We’re competing not only against our conference -- the Eastern Washingtons, the Montanas -- but we’re also competing against Sam Houston State and North Dakota State now. And we’re competing against them every single day. And you have to take that with you every time you step in the weight room or every time you step on the practice field. As coaches we have to do the same thing. We’ve got to prepare to beat North Dakota State and Sam Houston State right now. And we do that not only schematically and Xs and Os-wise, but also with recruiting as well. When we recruit guys, we can no longer say, ‘Well, they’re going to be great in the Big Sky Conference.’ We’ve got to recruit kids that are going to be able to compete against the top dogs in the country. And hopefully when all is said and done it will correlate on the football field.”