BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate has talked about Montana State’s kickoff coverage unit being a “tone-setter” for the entire team, but last season was an exercise in inconsistency in this underrated yet crucial facet of the game.
Statistically, the Bobcats finished 2018 tied for last in the Big Sky Conference in kickoff coverage and generated the second-fewest touchbacks in the league. Opponents averaged a healthy 24.6 yards per return.
But MSU is counting on improved depth at positions like inside linebacker and an influx of younger players looking to cut their teeth on special teams as a means to improve.
“Almost like clockwork, if you give up a big return you start playing on your heels. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to be able to eliminate that mindset and just play fast and physical all the time,” said Choate, who is entering his fourth year as coach.
“I really don’t think it was a scheme thing for us last year — I just think it was getting out in front of some things, and once we’d get popped a little bit our guys were a little tentative. And then you’re like, ‘Do we sky kick here and just give up field position?’ We don’t want to waive a white flag.”
The Bobcats can’t get much deeper at inside linebacker, where Michael Jobman, Chad Kanow, Walker Cozzie, Nolan Askelson, Callahan O’Reilly, Josh Hill and Blake Flovin have been battling for two starting spots throughout fall camp.
But they’re going to need all of them, and those that don’t figure into the every-down lineup as much will be counted on to cover kicks.
“It’s good having a bunch of young, hungry guys coming back,” special teams coordinator B.J. Robertson said. “Depth, obviously, is a big thing on special teams as the year kind of wears on.
“We’ve made an emphasis of it. I really like our guys and our depth.”
“There’s not a lot of experience game-wise,” Choate added, “but that should help us on kickoff coverage, having that depth and having a lot of those guys that have that type of skill set.”
Senior placekicker Tristan Bailey, by all accounts, got stronger during the offseason thanks in part to a focus on flexibility. It has served him well during camp, not just on field goals — he split the uprights with ease on two 50-yard attempts during MSU’s second scrimmage last week — but also on kickoffs.
It depends on the opponent and the returner, but if Bailey can generate more touchbacks (and fair catches) it would probably serve the Bobcats well.
“He’s really hitting his kickoffs good right now, which was a little bit of a problem for us at times last year,” Choate said earlier in camp. “And so that’s been a place where he’s really taken the next step.
“And then it’s been good for him to have another placekicker in camp (in freshman Caleb Mancini). Those guys can critique each other, they can compete against one another, and I think that helps as well.”
Bailey made 14 field goals last year.
Punter Jered Padmos, also a senior, has become one of the team’s best special teams weapons while combining a rollout punting style with the ability to pin teams inside the 20-yard line. Padmos averaged 42.1 yards per punt last year, forced 10 fair catches and placed 21 kicks inside the 20 — including two inside the 5 against Montana.
Robertson said Padmos has improved his hangtime and distance on his traditional sky punts, but the rollout is what makes him dangerous.
“We love it. It keeps returners off balance,” Robertson said. “He’s still got his pitching wedge. He’s still crafty as far as the rollout and the cross-left.”
Padmos’ precision has made life a little easier on the punt coverage unit.
Fifth-year senior running back Logan Jones, who sat out all but four regular season games last year due to injury, is expected to handle kickoff return duties. The fast and shifty Jones, who Robertson described as “electric,” took a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown in a game at Portland State in 2015 and flashed that same big-play flair in limited time a year ago.
Choate has been hopeful that wideout Willie Patterson, who suffered a year-ending shoulder injury midway through last season, can assume the kickoff returner position from Kevin Kassis to provide more of a big-play threat. Safety Jahque Alleyne is another option.
“I’d really like to see Willie take over,” Choate said. “Obviously Kevin’s been such a steady Eddie for us, and that’s a great thing to have back there. Possession is the most important thing on punt return, but I think Willie gives us a little bit more. He’s got to earn it but I’d really like to see Willie kind of take that role over.”
Long-snapper Logan McDonald returns for his second season with the team, while both Padmos and wideout Travis Jonsen have swapped holding duties during camp.