BOZEMAN — Thinking outside the box has been the mantra for Montana State football during its rise from average in coach Jeff Choate’s first season to FCS semifinalist in his fourth.
As Choate himself puts it, the Cats haven’t been shy about playing quarterbacks at wide receiver, linebackers at quarterback, and running backs at linebacker.
The theme has spilled over into recruiting, where Choate and his staff also have parlayed some of the unique assets of MSU and Bozeman — having players and parents visit in the summer, for instance — into an athlete-oriented 23-member early recruiting class introduced Wednesday during a press conference at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
Of those new players for 2020, 10 are from Montana — including the late addition of an all-round athlete Choate described as “the cherry on top”: Melstone’s Brody Grebe, a four-sport high school star who spent the past year at a prep academy (Choate Rosemary Hall) on the East Coast.
“It starts off and always will as long as we’re here with our heart and soul coming from Montana,” Choate said.
The remainder hail from the Interstate 5 corridor in Oregon, Washington and California as well as Texas. The final recruit is North Carolina State transfer quarterback Matthew McKay, whose arrival will no doubt create an instant story line at the game’s most visible and valuable position.
In keeping with the program’s theme, though only one player is listed as an “athlete” on the position breakdown, Choate said at least five or six actually fit the bill and could see action at a variety of positions.
“That’s been a hallmark of ours,” Choate said. “Don’t worry about where guys sit on the bus — just worry about getting the right guys on the bus and we’ll worry about the rest later. It’s helped us win a lot of games the last couple years because of our willingness to think outside of the box.”
He later added: “If you’re a really talented athlete and you want to look for a place to play college football where they’re going to use all your skill sets, why wouldn’t you come to Montana State? We don’t put kids in boxes here.”
MSU has built its program in the trenches and the focus was there again in this recruiting cycle. That’ll continue through the regular signing period in February, Choate said, when the Cats hope to bolster their lines and secondary.
“We continue to invest heavily in the offensive and defensive lines,” he said. “That’s where it starts and ends for us.”
As for quarterback, the Bobcats added two to the mix — Bozeman’s Jake D’Agostino is listed as a defensive back, though as noted at MSU, anything can happen — to fuel some competition come spring.
Will McKay push for the full-time job now owned by redshirt sophomore Tucker Rovig? Will incoming freshman Tommy Mellott push for playing time?
“We’ll worry about that when they get here,” Choate said Wednesday, reminding the audience at least one more game remains in the current season. “Right now we’ve got one quarterback in Tucker Rovig and we’ve got a backup in Casey Baumann and we used Travis (Jonsen) a little bit there and use whoever is helping us win games. It’s going to be a good competition, I can tell you that.”
Choate used Mellott as an example of the quintessential Bobcat, noting that he’s revered in Butte for his accomplishments and humility on and off the field. He pointed to Mellott’s volunteering with Special Olympics the week of the Bulldogs’ state Class AA title game against Bozeman and his desire to become a physician.
“It’s hard to find enough words to describe the kind of character this guy has,” Choate said. “His numbers speak for themselves. He’s a winner, he’s one of smartest guys in that school, he’s one of toughest kids in that school, he’s one of the best athletes in that school, and he’s going to be the same thing here at Montana State.
“He’s the type of young man that pushes your program forward not because of what he does between the white lines but because they have the big picture in mind.”
Mellott, in fact, fits the prototype, Choate added.
While naturally searching for the most talented and accomplished athletes possible, the coaching staff has been adamant about “how they fit in the locker room.” Choate described the ideal candidates as “low-ego guys that are high output, smart, and care about being Montana State Bobcats. And I think that’s what we’ve brought in this class.”
More and more, too, the Cats have used the early signing period in December to their advantage. When once the focus was on the traditional period in February and campus visits typically were in the late fall or early winter, now athletes are looking to make decisions earlier.
Recruiting coordinator and former MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee said the staff made the conscious decision to “push some of that (timing) backward” in terms of visits. The staff identified targets in the spring and nudged them to explore MSU, Bozeman and the Greater Yellowstone region in the summer.
“Of course, who doesn’t want to be in Bozeman in the summer?” McGhee said. “It’s a beautiful place so we wanted to showcase all of the assets that are here in Bozeman.”
Naturally, success has its place as well. In Choate’s four years, the Cats have evolved from 4-7 to 5-6 to 8-5 and finally 11-3 and a semifinal berth against No. 1 North Dakota State (14-0) on Saturday.
“Certainly it can’t hurt,” Choate said of recruiting to a winner. “I think it was a lot of begging and pleading maybe the first few years, a ‘trust us we’re going to get there’, and now that we’ve kind of put our money where our mouth is and people are recognizing the job we’re doing not only on the football field … I think people really respect the job the coaches do in terms of recruiting and developing young men of character.
“It’s made it easier for us because we’ve had our priorities in line in terms of taking care of the kids in the program.”