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Montana State keeps eyes on offense midway through spring drills
Montana State went 19-6 combined in the last two football seasons, including a 14-2 mark in the Big Sky Conference that led to shares of two straight league championships and two straight playoff appearances.
Now that they are midway through spring practice in advance of the 2012 season, sixth-year coach Rob Ash says the Bobcats continue to make strides.
“I’m pretty satisfied,” Ash said Wednesday. “I really like the way our guys have been working. They’re not resting on their laurels coming off the last two seasons.
“I’m impressed with the physical gains we’ve made in the offseason with our size, strength and explosiveness, especially.”
Defensively, with eight starters returning, the Bobcats have very few questions. Ash said the defense has so far held the edge through seven spring outings.
Instead, the biggest adjustments are being mounted on offense, where the Bobcats are getting acclimated to new offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven while breaking in a number of new starters.
McGiven was hired last month to take the reins from previous coordinator Brian Wright, who left for Florida Atlantic in January after two highly productive seasons at MSU. McGiven came to the Bobcats after two seasons at Memphis, where he was the assistant head coach for offense. McGiven has previous experience in the Big Sky Conference, having coordinated the offense at Weber State from 2006-08.
So far, Ash says, the transition to a new OC has been relatively smooth.
“Stylistically, it’s different,” Ash said. “Brian Wright had more of those Ohio and Pennsylvania roots, with a hard-nosed running game and play-action passing off of that. Kevin McGiven has more of a BYU, wide-open philosophy with lots of personnel groups and formations.
“Every day when we put in new plays the guys’ heads swim a little bit, but then they pick it up and get it down. We’re not as polished right now as we would have been without this transition, but that’s to be expected. That’s why spring ball is so crucial. We’re getting the kinks ironed out now.”
The main areas of focus are the offensive line, the running game and at wide receiver.
The Bobcats lost four staring offensive linemen from last season, and the lone returner for 2012 is senior center Shaun Sampson. To adjust, the team moved former tight end Steven Foster to one tackle spot and have so far filled the other holes with redshirt freshmen like Manhattan’s John Weidenaar and Kalispell Glacier’s Joel Horn, and Eugene, Ore., product Matthew Devereux.
The Bobcats are young and inexperienced up front, and Ash said the team could look for junior college reinforcements for the O-line. But he isn’t gung-ho about that possibility.
“We’ll keep our eyes open,” Ash said. “But we’re not going to do it unless we find the kind of people to fit in with this football program. They’d have to be a perfect fit, both from a character and an ability standpoint. We’re not just out to get bodies.”
Meanwhile, Ash and his coaching staff continue to monitor their running backs, where depth is no issue. Cody Kirk and Tray Robinson return after combining for 1,992 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and former 1,000-yard rusher Orenzo Davis is also set to return after missing the 2011 season due to academic ineligibility.
The running backs are being coached by newly added assistant Demo Odems, who was hired in January from his head coaching job at Lyndon B. Johnson High School in Austin, Texas.
“It’s a pretty special group with Cody and Tray both coming back, and with Orenzo back in the mix,” Ash said of MSU’s backfield. “And Shawn Johnson is also a really good player.
“Everybody is working hard and that’s what competition does. We’re seeing great performances from all those guys. We’re not worrying too much about who’s carrying the ball right now or who’s getting most of the reps. We’re using this time to evaluate everyone and figure out how to use the talent we have.”
At wide receiver, the Bobcats will probably see more spread-out production after the departure of star Elvis Akpla. Akpla caught 63 passes for 1,145 yards and 11 TDs last season.
Ash said Tanner Bleskin (30 catches, 3 TDs in 2011), John Ellis and Laurel product Brian Flotkoetter have mostly been vying for the attention of standout quarterback DeNarius McGhee.
“It’s been really good for our receivers,” Ash said. “Elvis was a magnet for (McGhee’s) eyes because he was so good. But now everybody feels like they have a chance to get the ball.
“I don’t think any one guy will have the numbers Elvis did last year, but our passing numbers I think will be just as good when all is said and done.”
The Bobcats will be on the field again Thursday for a full-contact practice. Their next scrimmage is set for April 14 at Bobcat Stadium. MSU will finish its spring practice season April 21 with the annual Triangle Classic in Great Falls.
“We just have to keep evaluating our personnel,” Ash said. “Not so much for our top guys – for them it’s just a matter of getting through spring ball in good shape and adapting to the new wrinkles and nuances.
“But we really want to keep evaluating our new starters and the other guys competing for jobs. Because they’re such an important piece, and we have some roster decisions to make.”
NOTES: All-Big Sky LB Jody Owens underwent a surgical procedure on his knee earlier this offseason and will not participate in spring drills. … S Joel Fuller recently had ankle surgery and will miss the remainder of the spring. … The team is looking for an able replacement for All-America PK Jason Cunningham. Ash said Trevor Bolton, Keith Leenders and returning P Rory Perez are competing for the job, but that the competition is “wide open.”
By By GREG RACHAC, The Billings Gazette