BOZEMAN — Justin Udy came to Montana State as its offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach this winter, and just as the program was ramping into drills the spring season was suspended and ultimately cancelled.
Udy has previously served as a position coach and coordinator in the small-college ranks, and most recently has filled non-coaching roles at Utah State and Texas Tech.
MSU sports information director Bill Lamberty recently interviewed Udy about his new position.
Q: How have you enjoyed jumping back into a coaching role?
A: The best part for me has been getting the opportunity to coach again, to have the quarterback room and get the opportunity to build relationships with them and sink my teeth back into drill work and all the aspects that come with managing a position group. Specifically with the coordinator role, you are trying to figure out a program. I got asked what the biggest challenge is of being the offensive coordinator here would be in the interview process, and I just said matching the success the program has had. That’s something that is obviously right in front of your face, the team had a tremendous year and you want to be able to come in and not shake it up in to the point where you take away from everything that has been accomplished.
That’s been the best part, working with the assistant coaches, both on offense and on defense. Coach Ioane has been able to help me through the transition he made from Washington to here, shedding some light on that. My offensive coaches have been great, keeping me in the loop on things and helping educate me on what has been done in the past and how that marries up with how I see things. But the best part has been the getting the chance to coach again and have my own room. That part of it is refreshing and everything I hoped it would be.
Q: With the unusual nature of this spring, what has the process of beginning a new job been like?
A: It’s definitely been a crazy time, but it’s really been a crazy time for everyone. The best part for me has been the guys I work with and their flexibility and willingness to help with this transition that has really helped me, and then the players. The culture is so good here that it hasn’t been ‘work-ball’. Some programs in this situation, it’s hard, because you might be in a spot where you have to micro-manage the players. But there’s a lot of horizontal leadership within the locker room. When we get together and do conference calls and meetings, the quarterback room specifically has been really professional and those guys are seasoned players who understand how to get their work in.
They schedule out their days, they have their workouts, they have their position meetings, they have their class time, and that’s what we focus our energy on, making sure we have a way to maintain our edge. The coaching staff and the players have certainly helped me through any of the transitional things that you would imagine in taking a new job without a pandemic going on would be a challenge. The (canceled) practices, I’m not sure what that looks like going forward, but I am happy with the progress we’ve made offensively with our coaches and our players.
Q: How have you found the transition away from in-person contact to web-based and electronic communication?
A: I think it’s been a challenge, I think there’s always an initial learning curve, but we’ve been able to get through that this first week back from spring break. We all have a better feel for what we need to do to be successful and productive. Not everyone is as up to speed on technology, so it’s been a little easier with the smaller position groups in terms of numbers. We have a small room, so it’s easier for me to manage that. I know some of the bigger groups, wide receiver and offensive line, Coach (Brian) Armstrong and Coach (Erik) Frazier have done a tremendous job at juggling that amount of people and making sure academically those guys are on track. They’re separating those worlds, we’ve got to take care of academics, that’s separate from football, and then from there we’re able to get some football in.
I think a big part of it has been taking the focus away for the (players) from everything that’s happening in the outside world and using football as a resource to get away. Some guys are in areas where it’s a little bit hotter right now with the virus going through, and for us it’s learning to maintain the relationships with those players. That’s our main priority is being there for them emotionally and whatever they need in that aspect, and helping guide them through the academic challenges that this thing has brought on. Then the third phase is what we can use football-wise to help them escape, because it can be overwhelming. Social media is so powerful and right now you get on there and you see the same things over and over, so it’s good to get back to having relationships and talking about things that don’t have to do with the worries over what’s going on.
Q: Do you feel like the staff has a good handle on the players’ emotional well-being?
A: One hundred percent. I feel one hundred percent confident in that, and it starts at the top with the head coach. Coach Choate is a players’ coach, and we are very fortunate to be in a situation where our head coach is someone our players respect and if we have concerns about a (player) there are several avenues we can take in order to (help) him, and that has a lot to do with the relationship our players have with their head coach, and that trickles down to the (coaching) staff.
We don’t have a lot of players who are just isolated on one coach in the program, it’s very, very different that way. A lot of different coaches are able to build and develop relationships with any player on the team. When a kid is struggling and having a hard time, he’s not by himself, he has multiple people in his corner, so I think we’ve been able to get a feel for that because we have multiple sets of eyes and ears on it, we have multiple people looking out for that sort of thing.
Q: What is it like to manage a quarterback group that includes three players — Tucker Rovig, Casey Bauman, and NC State transfer Matthew McKay — with Division I starting experience?
A: It’s been refreshing for me. The biggest disappointment is that we want to see those guys compete with each other and right now it’s in a different format, but it’s been great to see how those three guys have responded and the approach they’re taking with what’s going on right now. I can get a feel when I do talk to them and through our position group meetings how they are individually managing it and where their priorities lie. That’s what I’ve been able to take from this situation, trying to get to know them on a little bit of a different level.
I think all three of those guys are very, very excited. Nobody really knows what to think right now, but I don’t ever get the feeling that people think there won’t be football next fall, so they’re professional in their approach to it, they’re on time for meetings, they’re handling their academics, they’re living their life right, and they’re there for their teammates and families who need their help right now, too. I feel really, really confident that those guys understand what we’re asking of them and that they’re trying to lead the organization through their actions.
Q: Casey Bauman and Tucker Rovig grew into the leadership role last year when each of them started games at MSU, and Matthew McKay has started games at North Carolina State. Do you sense leadership coming from your quarterback group?
A: I think in order for us to have the season that we want to have the quarterback position has to be a leadership position on the team. In the first few months that I’ve been here there was a transition that took place between the 2019 season to the 2020 season, between those two guys that have been here and their approach to where they fall in the pecking order. Both of those guys have approached it like they’re going to lead our football organization. There’s no doubt in my mind that the quarterback position has to lead us in 2020, and those guys have approached it like they are going to be able to do that.
People say, how do you know that if you haven’t seen them play? I’m talking more specifically to the approach they’ve taken off the football field, the time that they’ve spent with their teammates, the time that they’ve invested with their teammates in building relationships and showing them with actions that they can be counted on and can be relied on. And there’s always that in any football program, even football programs where a a kid will come in and start as a freshman. He’s not necessarily a leader in that scenario, and I think of a kid like Tucker and Casey who have both played here before, they were able to get that out of the way last year and in my mind the expectation is that they take (a leadership role) over, and in my mind they’ve done nothing to show me they can’t do that at this point.
Q: What is the internal dynamic among the three quarterbacks?
A: I keep using the word professional, but that’s something we talk about in our room, being a pro. All eyes are on us, and that includes how we interact with each other, how we communicate with each other, specifically the two guys that have been here. They have a tight bond, they’ve spent time in the quarterback meeting room together, they’ve had to battle through tough games and tough seasons together, and hear those hard conversations. We met on that just the other day, our meeting room environment, how sometimes you have to have thick skin because you have to hear things that maybe you don’t agree with but that’s just the reality of it, we’re very transparent, and so those guys have been able to form a bond through their time together, Tucker and Casey.
Matt is still finding his way as far as where he fits with the quarterback group, specifically. Matt’s done a great job in knowing how to approach other position groups on the team. He’s made friends, he’s made connections with those guys, and he has his own identity, and that’s important for him. Tucker and Casey have done a great job of including Matt in what we’re doing and helping him in his transition, because he’s making a big transition from where he grew up in North Carolina and coming to Montana State to play.
But the best part is that Matt chose Montana State for the right reasons, and that’s one of the reasons I’m really, really excited for him. He’s taken a first-class approach to it, and those other two guys, they’ve done a great job of understanding the transition they’ve needed to make to lead the football program, and their relationship is very, very strong already. There is going to be some competitiveness that is going to come out from what happens on the field, but specifically in the meeting rooms and team functions, those guys all get along really, really good.