BOZEMAN — At 6-foot-2 and nearly 220 pounds, Montana State free safety Brayden Konkol looks as physically imposing as he ever has.
Konkol is coming off a season in which he led the Bobcats with 93 total tackles. He also intercepted two passes, forced a fumble and recovered three others. At the end of the year Konkol was named honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference.
Meanwhile, strong safety Jahque Alleyne (6-1, 185) played an important role in his first season with the Bobcats, finishing with 38 tackles, a conference-best five interceptions, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He, too, was named honorable mention all-conference.
It’s clear that Konkol and Alleyne make up one of the best returning safety tandems in the Big Sky, and they are the key to MSU’s fortunes in the defensive backfield. But it doesn’t end there.
Konkol, a Belgrade product in his fifth year at MSU, envisions big things from the entire group.
“This is the best secondary I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here. You can tell,” Konkol said during the Bobcats’ ongoing fall camp. “We’re deep. We have eight, nine, 10 guys that I think coaches are comfortable playing.
“I think with all that depth it creates a lot of competition. Our whole unit is just getting better from that.”
Alleyne’s five interceptions led the way for a secondary that picked off nine passes in 2018 and led a surge of takeaways that helped MSU finish plus-10 in turnover margin, which tied for the top spot in the league.
Konkol said he and Alleyne are meshing as well as ever in the back end.
“It’s way better,” said Konkol, who has changed his jersey number from 18 to 41. “We’re closer off the field. We got to know each other better. We’re better friends, better teammates, more comfortable playing with each other.
“We know how we’re going to play a certain coverage and when we’re going to disguise and things like that. It’ll be really fun.”
Alleyne was a welcome addition from his previous football stop at Virginia Tech. As was cornerback Greg Filer (6-0, 170), who transferred in from Compton College in California before last season and intercepted two passes, one of which he took back for a touchdown against Weber State.
Creating turnovers, Konkol said, helps create victories.
“That’s just something that the coaches really emphasize,” Konkol said. “The team that takes the ball away more usually ends up winning the game. It’s something that we really harp on around here, and hopefully it will allow us to win a lot of games.”
Interceptions also come from the defense’s ability to pressure the pocket. With pass rushers Bryce Sterk and Amandre Williams coming at quarterbacks from opposite sides of the line, MSU hopes to be able to improve on last year's total of 23 quarterback sacks and also force more errant throws.
Filer, like Konkol, was named to the 2019 preseason All-Big Sky team. He and fellow corners Damien Washington (5-11, 190) and Tyrel Thomas (5-8, 165) have shown the ability to compete and excel in man-to-man coverage, which the Bobcats hope to play even more of this season.
“I really like how the cornerbacks are playing right now as far as their mentality,” first-year defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said. “We really like to play tight coverage, and to play tight coverage you have to have corners that really embrace that mentality, and I think our guys have really done that.”
Ioane and head coach Jeff Choate have both at times mentioned the strong performance of redshirt freshman cornerback Level Price (5-8, 175), who could play an important role. Safeties JoJo Henderson (6-3, 200) and Ty Okada (5-11, 175) have also showed their mettle in fall camp.
Okada is a player that could factor into MSU’s nickel package, along with Thomas and Price. Henderson, who is entering his third season with the Bobcats, is more than just a backup.
It remains to be seen how much the secondary will miss Jalen Cole, one of its better cover corners. Cole is expected to sit out the entire season due to a head/neck injury he sustained toward the end of last season.
Ioane was a four-time All-America safety at Montana State from 2000-03. In his new dual role as defensive coordinator and safeties coach, Ioane believes this unit can be more effective than last season when it helped limit opponents to just 13 touchdown passes, tied for the fewest in the Big Sky.
As for defensive takeaways, they represent one of the most important statistics in football. Can the Bobcats continue a positive trend that began in the second half of last season?
“It always starts up front. We’ve got to stop the run, and we’ve got a good front in that regard, but you can’t be a good defense if your secondary doesn’t play well and doesn’t get the ball when the opportunity comes,” Ioane said.
“We want to be an aggressive, ball-hawking unit in the back end. Every single day our objective is to score and get the ball back, and I think our guys have really caught on to that and they’re hungry for that.
“You can see them attack in the football when the ball is in the air. That’s our mentality. If the ball is in the air, it’s ours.”