BOZEMAN — For the first time in a long time, new Montana State defensive coordinator Kane Ioane has a hankering for some spring football.
It wasn’t always that way.
“I’ve not been a big fan of spring ball my whole career,” Ioane said Tuesday during a news conference at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. “As a player I didn’t like it, as a coach I haven’t liked it … and I say that, but I also know and understand there’s a lot of importance to it.
“This is probably the first spring ball in a long time where I’m like, ‘Yes. Let’s go practice.’ It allows us to actually coach our guys and to see them develop on a daily basis.”
The Bobcats have yet to release an official spring practice schedule, but indications are that they’ll hit the field this week as the deep freeze that engulfed the state begins to subside.
That Ioane has a strong itch is understandable. Taking over as defensive coordinator for the departed Ty Gregorak, Ioane is back at MSU after spending two seasons at the University of Washington as a quality control analyst.
Ioane, a true blue Bobcat since his days as an All-American safety at MSU from 2000-03, is eager to see how the defense can improve.
“There are small, little details that we’re going to fine tune in order for us to take that next step,” Ioane said. “We were a really good defense. We want to be a great defense and in turn be a great team.”
The Bobcats had their best season under Choate last year with an 8-5 record and their first playoff win since 2012. Ioane is one of three additions to Choate’s staff, including linebackers coach/assistant head coach Bobby Daly and wide receivers coach Erik Frazier.
Following are five position groups to watch as the Bobcats get set to open spring drills — whenever that is:
Linebacker: Daly, also a former MSU All-American, returns to the program after spending the past six years as on the staff at Idaho.
“I feel like we’ve got a smart group of guys, I feel like we’ve got a strong, athletic group of guys, now we need to tie it all together and be productive on the field,” Daly said. “The more I can work with them the more it’s going to benefit them and me.”
This is a group that’s had to overcome injuries to key players: Josh Hill missed last season following back surgery but returned in time for a 52-10 second-round playoff loss at North Dakota State. Chad Kanow played in just four games. Balue Chapman medically retired earlier in the offseason.
And as is always a big subplot: Troy Andersen could be positioned at linebacker for the spring — though it’s foolhardy to assume he won’t still touch the ball at times on offense. Eyes will be on transfers Amandre Williams and Blake Flovin to see what impact they can have.
Quarterback: Based on the assertions of Choate and offensive coordinator Matt Miller, the QB competition is open again. It hasn't come without some hand-wringing.
Andersen played linebacker exclusively last spring before becoming a unanimous All-Big Sky selection at quarterback in the fall. But now Tucker Rovig, Casey Bauman and Ruben Beltran could see the majority of the reps.
Chris Murray, academically ineligible last fall after starting in 2016 and ’17, is also one to keep a close eye on.
Defensive line: This was MSU’s strongest position group — despite what happened at NDSU. There are still several key pieces in place regardless of the departure of the Big 3 up front: nose Tucker Yates, tackle Zach Wright and end Tyrone Fa’anono.
Edge rusher Bryce Sterk had a monster year, piling up 8.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. It’s hard to believe Derek Marks will be a senior in 2019; nevertheless his experience is valuable. The ultra-strong Chase Benson still has a big upside.
James Williams saw extensive playing time as a true freshman in the middle last year. Meanwhile, Choate has spoken highly in the past about 6-3, 270-pounder Seer Deines.
Wide receiver: Frazier takes over a position group replete with skill. Kevin Kassis, Travis Johnson and Lance McCutcheon made big plays in the passing game despite MSU’s unflinching commitment to its power running game.
“The biggest thing this spring is obviously building depth and consistency with this group,” said Frazier, who came to MSU from Western Illinois. “Getting those guys to make plays and have anybody that we call on within this unit to make a play at any time, that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Frazier’s call for depth will serve as a chance for Coy Steele, by all accounts one of the hardest-working players in the program, to take the next step.
Tight end: The Bobcats also lost three valuable seniors here in Connor Sullivan, Curtis Amos and Wilson Brott. It was a trio that made its biggest impact by run blocking. Who fills those shoes? There were three tight ends remaining on the winter roster: Ryan Davis, Derryk Snell and Treyton Pickering.
“I love having a tight end in the system that can do a lot of things,” Miller said. “I’m excited for those young guys to take the next step, because they’re going to get plenty of opportunities this spring.”
Sources have said that linebacker Jacob Hadley will transition to tight end, though Miller wouldn't confirm. Hadley’s availability for the spring remains to be seen anyway after he underwent offseason shoulder surgery.