An unprecedented year has led to an unprecedented haul for the Montana State football program.
In a typical year, the Bobcats likely wouldn’t receive verbal commitments from any recruits until late in the summer. But this spring’s coronavirus pandemic has altered the recruiting calendar and canceled or postponed camps and campus visits.
In response, the Montana State coaching staff adjusted its recruiting approach and has already received verbal commitments from five in-state athletes in the 2021 class. Elijah Reynolds, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound tight end from Red Lodge, was the first to break the seal last December.
“I’ve always had a dream of playing at Montana State. Once I got the opportunity to play there, that’s where I wanted to go,” Reynolds said. “The coaches and the stadium and how jacked the fans get, I just really fell in love with the place. It was a pretty easy decision for me.”
After Reynolds’ commitment, others followed suit this spring. Eli Aby of Laurel, Kade Cutler of Drummond-Philipsburg and Jace Fitzgerald of Dillon announced their intentions last week. Jace Fisher of Troy became the latest to commit, making his announcement on Thursday.
"The reason I felt like Montana State was the coaches. They’re the ones that made it special, and they’re the ones that made me feel like that’s my next home," said Fisher, a 6-5, 305-pound defensive tackle. "They just showed that they wanted me, and I felt like a family there already."
Cutler, too, mentioned the family aspect of the MSU staff as one of the reasons he committed, and that sentiment was echoed by Fitzgerald, who actually has a family tie to the Bobcats. His brother R.J. will be a junior this fall after playing in 15 games last season as a fullback and tight end.
“I think they just build great relationships with all the recruits,” said Jace Fitzgerald, who will likely be a tight end or linebacker at MSU. “It’s kind of a family-based program. Everybody’s family, you have someone to lean on and someone to fall back on, too. It’s awesome to feel that way.”
Since being named Montana State’s head coach in late 2015, Jeff Choate has built a staff heavy on Montana ties. Defensive coordinator Kane Ioane (Billings), special teams coordinator B.J. Robertson (Sheridan), linebackers coach Bobby Daly (Helena) and offensive line coach Brian Armstrong (East Helena) are all Treasure State natives.
But it’s Robertson who does much of the initial legwork in reaching out to prospects to take those first relationship-building steps.
“I feel like (Robertson is) a really easy guy to get to know, and he’s easy to talk to and build a relationship with,” said Aby, who was recruited to play safety. “He was really instrumental in it. He was always on it, sending out messages or staying in touch, just stuff like that.”
“I’ve really talked to coach B.J. Robertson a lot. I’ve known him for a long time since he was in Dillon (coaching the Montana Western football program), and then I’ve just had a really good relationship with him,” Jace Fitzgerald said. “Always talking to him about baseball and other things, not just football. He’s just a great guy. That’s kind of who I made my biggest relationship with.”
Robertson and the MSU coaching staff, of course, aren’t allowed to publicly comment on unsigned athletes. But the Bobcats have made clear headway in their recruitments of in-state athletes, carrying over momentum from last season.
MSU has improved its record each year during Choate’s tenure, won all four rivalry games with the University of Montana and advanced to the FCS playoffs the past two years. Last fall, Montana State reached the FCS semifinals for the first time since 1984, losing at eventual champion North Dakota State, 42-14, to finish the season 11-4.
“We’ve really shifted a lot of our focus onto Montana kids this recruiting cycle, because, No. 1, I think it’s a good year for football athletes in the state, but, No. 2, those are the guys that we have seen in person and those are the guys that have been on our campus,” Choate said during a Facebook Live event with the Montana State Alumni Foundation.
“We’ve done a ton of Zooms with parents and student-athletes and we’ve obviously done the best job that we can to build relationships, but I think the biggest thing that we have done is try to shift our focus to our in-state kids that we know more about during this recruiting cycle,” he added.
With the absence of in-person visits, the digital relationships forged have increased in importance. Choate announced Thursday that he and Montana State were officially canceling all team and prospect camps this summer after the NCAA extended the recruiting dead period through the end of July.
Coaches are permitted to continue virtual conversations with prospects.
"It’s gone pretty smoothly," Fisher said of the exchanges with coaches via social media and text messages. "They’ve been there for me, they’ve talked to me, they’ve been committed to me already. They’ve showed that they want me there."
Now that the Bobcats have five commits in the fold, those players have started to try to recruit additional athletes in the class to join them in Bozeman. Prior to Fisher’s announcement Thursday, Reynolds, Aby, Cutler and Fitzgerald started a group chat to get to know each other.
“We have a group chat and kind of talk about how excited we are to get there and what guys we want to go after next. It’s really special, actually,” Reynolds said.
Added Aby: “We were just talking about getting other Montana kids to join in and get on board. Just kind of getting to know each other and just how excited we were that we’re all going to that same place next year.”
“I think a big thing is they’ve built a culture that you want to get hard-working guys that want to be there,” Fitzgerald said. “If you don’t want to join them, you’re going to get beat by them.”