BOZEMAN — Welcome to winter football.
That’s how Montana State coach Jeff Choate described his team’s practice workload over the course of the past couple weeks. The weather in these parts hasn’t allowed for much.
The Bobcats have gotten on the field twice this week for what Choate said amounted to their first “official” practices of spring drills.
“There’s days where the field’s clear but it’s an ice skating rink,” Choate said Thursday during a press conference at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. “We can’t go out there and risk our kids’ safety and health over a spring ball practice.
“At the end of this thing, what we want to do, our No. 1 objective needs to be to come out of this healthy. We’ve had some really tough things happen to us in these not-meaningful practices in spring ball, and we want to make sure that all our guys that start spring ball finish spring ball.”
If the Bobcats don’t conduct all of their 15 allotted practices, so be it. But they at least want to work on fundamentals, get some live work in, evaluate younger players, develop depth and set the stage for growth coming off last year’s 8-5 playoff season.
One player looking to build from a stellar campaign is running back Isaiah Ifanse, whose bruising style helped him break records as a true freshman.
In 13 games a year ago, Ifanse rushed for 1,025 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry in the Bobcats' downhill rushing attack. Ifanse’s yardage total established a new Montana State mark for a freshman.
In a 49-42 victory over Cal Poly on Nov. 3, Ifanse rushed for a 227 yards, a Bobcat freshman record, and three touchdowns.
Ifanse, from Wing-T oriented Bellevue High School in suburban Seattle, exceeded his own expectations last year but figures he can have another huge season as a sophomore in 2019.
“I had no idea coming in. I had nothing to expect,” he said Thursday. “I feel like as long as the offensive line is still creating holes and still doing what they usually do, then yeah, I can.”
For as good as Ifanse was, Choate conveyed his belief that Ifanse was overshadowed by the performance of Troy Andersen, who broke the Big Sky Conference record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,412) and set single-season school records for rushing touchdowns (21) and 100-yard rushing games (nine).
Ifanse, whose interview Thursday was his first as a member of the Bobcats, seems soft-spoken and uncomfortable talking about his own exploits, but Choate gave the impression of Ifanse as someone who is motivated to be great.
“He’s a unique and special player,” Choate said. “Clearly Troy is an exceptional player and did some amazing things for us, but they’ve been playing football here for 120-some years, and (Ifanse) rushed for more yards as a true freshman than anybody else. Ever. That’s a pretty exceptional season.
“He’s a team guy and he’ll do whatever you ask, which is one of the things I love about Isaiah, but he’s also a guy who is really driven. You ask him and it’s like, ‘No, I want to own every record.’ And he’s poised to do that. He’s at the right place. We rushed the ball 533 times last year.”
Ifanse runs like a bull, and it often took two and three defenders to bring him down last season. He proved early (and often) to be too strong and too powerful for simple arm tackles.
He craves contact.
Ifanse said MSU running backs coach DeNarius McGhee “always tells all the running backs that we’re not going to run out of bounds. We’re going to play with a physical style and wear down the defense.”
“I don’t think his style is going to change,” offensive lineman Lewis Kidd said of Ifanse. “He’s not going to avoid anybody. He’s going to create contact and try to go through it. As an O-lineman that’s what you love to see, a guy who is really going to try break through tackles and finish runs.”
Whether that results in another 1,000-yard season and, eventually, more records is yet to be discovered. But with Andersen moving to linebacker — though he’ll always have a role on offense, Choate says — Ifanse is now the Bobcats’ featured player in the backfield.
“Just keep pounding the ball. Just keep going to our DNA plays,” Ifanse said of Montana State’s ground game. “The offensive line gave me confidence throughout the whole year last year. I want to do well for them and they want to do well for me.”
Cats name captains
Choate on Thursday announced the team captains for the 2019 season. They are linebacker Troy Andersen, receivers Kevin Kassis and Travis Jonsen, offensive tackle Mitch Brott, safety Brayden Konkol and defensive lineman Derek Marks.
Kassis, a senior next fall, is a repeat captain from last season. Choate said the selections were made via a team-wide vote.
Choate said Brott, a senior-to-be from Billings West, received the most votes.