BOZEMAN — Sometimes, evaluating the play of your defense isn’t all that complicated.
Following Saturday’s 2017 Sonny Holland Spring Classic, Montana State senior end Grant Collins categorized the play of the defense as “up and down.”
As it turns out, Collins was simultaneously providing a perfectly apt description of this MSU secondary.
In an abbreviated opening quarter, a much-improved Bobcat attack was able to rip off several big plays and touchdowns when the first-team offense and defense squared off.
Saturday’s performance not withstanding, the starting safety tandem of sophomore Brayden Konkol and senior Bryson McCabe, as well senior Khari Garcia, have developed a healthy blend of talent and experience.
The condition of the cornerback position on the other hand, is a little bit harder to diagnose.
At field corner, senior Bryce Alley has firmly claimed the first-team role that has eluded him up to this point in his career. For a position group that currently lacks significant experience and depth, he will need to provide veteran leadership and a consistent level of play.
Starting opposite Alley is sophomore Damien Washington. While the Covina, Calif. native hasn’t recorded nearly the number of reps as his fellow starter, he has grown more comfortable with his role over the course of this short spring season.
Despite a lack of in-game experience, there were positive signs of encouragement during the scrimmage from the pair of first-time starters.
In the second half, Alley made a great jump on a pass that led to a 55-yard pick-six for linebacker Balue Chapman.
After the game, head coach Jeff Choate also believed that “his corners were getting more comfortable in man-to-man coverages.”
Unfortunately, it’s still difficult to ignore the absence of defensive backs Tre’von Strong, Naijiel Hale and Darren Gardenhire.
While Strong transferred to Utah in December of 2016, the forced hiatus of Hale and Gardenhire is far more troubling.
Earlier this month, the two reported roommates were arrested and charged with drug-related felonies.
Both were released on bond following their arrests and were immediately suspended indefinitely by Choate.
The reason that the two talented players transferred from the University of Washington in the first place (where Choate previously served as defensive line and special teams coach) was allegedly because of disciplinary issues.
For the moment, let’s table (not ignore) the overarching moral implications of what this all means for the program. Instead, let’s focus on the more immediate question: What type of impact will these series of events have on this defense?
According to Choate, the solution for the unit’s current lack of depth at corner is simple: “build more.”
In addition to the progression of Alley and Washington, the three corners of the incoming freshman class must be prepared to be thrown into the deep end on Day 1 of fall camp.
“I think cornerback is one of those few positions where you can come in and play right away … as long as we don’t overcomplicate things,” Choate said. “We’re going to have to play some young guys back there. And they’re going to get their baptism of fire when they play Washington State on Sept. 2 … but it’s all up for grabs.”
Going forward, the coaches and defensive players will need to continue to work extremely hard to solidify the back end of this unit.
Because once the regular season finally arrives, it will become very clear just how far this group has come, or how far it might still have to go.