BOZEMAN — Growing up in Dillon, the son of a former University of Montana player, Kyle Finch knew where he wanted his career to lead him.
A conference defensive MVP and state champion at Beaverhead County High School, Finch hoped to play in the Big Sky Conference. Though from a Griz family, his destiny was not predetermined.
Finch visited Montana State’s campus the winter of his senior year. He sensed an immediate connection to the program. He believed the coaching staff deeply cared about its players.
Even his father was supportive. He too felt a family-type atmosphere, one that was welcoming and genuine.
This was the experience Finch, now a senior-to-be at MSU, wanted. It is also one the Bobcat coaches have been missing in recruiting.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the NCAA established a dead period for in-person recruiting until at least May 31 while giving programs more freedom for electronic communication.
MSU head coach Jeff Choate and his assistants have previously boasted of the importance of bringing recruits to campus, touring them through facilities like Bobcat Stadium, introducing them to the team and showing them the scenic views of Bozeman. Though the Bobcats have brought in new players in recent weeks, the only way MSU can essentially recruit is by virtual means.
The fruits of recruiting labors don’t often show until years after athletes have signed letters of intent. So the impact of the coronavirus on the Bobcats’ future remains unclear.
“We’ll see as this thing progresses and where it all goes,” defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said.
The Bobcats’ recruiting efforts have changed aside from the pandemic recently. In January, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator DeNarius McGhee left for a job with the NFL's Houston Texans.
Jimmy Beal left South Dakota State to take over both of those positions this at MSU offseason. During his introductory press conference, Beal emphasized the importance of finding recruits who can fit the Big Sky’s style of play and within the program’s cohesiveness.
That isn’t necessarily easier when teams can’t meet with them in person.
When Beal joined the program, Choate noted he was an appealing hire because of his willingness to reinvent himself. That included realigning coaches’ regions of focus and upping efforts in Colorado, specifically making Denver a priority behind Seattle and Montana.
“He’s going to bring us new ideas,” Choate said of Beal earlier this year. “How do we reinvent ourselves? Well we’ve got a great resource because we’ve got somebody who’s going to show us a different way to (recruit).
“We’re going to take what we’ve done, he’s going to enhance it, that’s what’s going to drive us forward. That fresh set of eyes, that new energy, all of that will be important in bringing this organization forward.”
This was before the pandemic restricted recruiting. Choate doesn’t consider the new limits an overwhelming obstacle, however, because other programs are facing the same struggles.
And, he pointed out, his staff can still put in the same work they did before, just differently.
Instead of being on the road, these coaches are now operating from their desks at home.
“I think we’re ahead of the game in that regard,” Ioane said. “We can’t get to those areas and to the kids in person, so it comes back to being creative and finding new ways in which we can connect with our recruits.”
The Bobcat coaches have had more time to evaluate the game film of potential players. They can still reach them and their families by social media messages, phone calls or video chats. They can still provide virtual tours of campus and videos of game-day experiences.
The key, Choate said, is keeping in touch with them consistently. He believes the teams that maintain connections, showing they care and giving them the same comfort Finch felt years ago, will be the ones those players want to visit when NCAA restrictions are lifted.
“In lieu of us trying to get them to come here, we’re trying to push them to look at us from a remote aspect,” Choate said. “You’ve got to get a little bit creative.”
The Bobcats are proving they can still promote themselves. Within the past two weeks, they have signed five new players including two FBS transfers. Only one of them visited campus.
Bobcat coaches have spoken of patching up holes in the roster, especially those left by departures such as that of twin brother cornerbacks Ty’Rhae and Ty’Rese Gibson, who are transferring.
The Bobcats not only addressed the defensive secondary by signing Arizona grad transfer and safety Chacho Ulloa, they also tried to bolster the line of scrimmage and the running game, which has been Choate’s highest point of emphasis both in recruiting and his desired style of play.
University of Washington graduate transfer John Clark, who toured MSU’s campus, became the fourth player to join the defensive front from the Huskies in the past three seasons. Ben Seymour, a defensive lineman, led College of the Canyons as a freshman in 2019 with 12 sacks.
Offensive lineman Cole Sain, whose father and uncle played for the Bobcats in the 1980s, transferred from Riverside Community College after redshirting at Montana.
MSU also signed versatile running back Elijah Elliott from Portland (Oregon) Central Catholic High School. He rushed for 1,073 yards on 135 carries in a first-team all-conference senior year and totaled 2,816 yards and 41 touchdowns in his career.
“They had to trust us and we had to trust them,” Choate said in a press release about the four transfers. “But I think they all felt very comfortable with the direction of the program, with the reputation Montana State has athletically and academically, and none of us really know what the future might hold, so I’m glad they decided to hop in now.”
By demonstrating flexibility, MSU still hopes to build its program how it wants.
“Everybody is going through the same thing so everybody has to find new ways to reach student-athletes and figure out how to still showcase the strengths that you have as a program and a community and a university,” Ioane said.
“I don’t feel like we should lose out on anybody because I still feel strongly about how well we can recruit even given the situation that we’re in.”