GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The first phone call Jeff Choate remembers is one from Gators coach Will Muschamp.
Choate was busy preparing for UTEP’s spring game in his first season as the Miners’ defensive coordinator when Muschamp, whom he had gotten to know a few years earlier at a coaching clinic at Texas, called to ask if Choate would be interested in joining Florida’s staff following the departure of Bryant Young.
Choate had just taken the UTEP job in January after a season at Washington State. His mind began to race. Choate’s family was still in Washington while he lived in an El Paso hotel until they settled on a new home to move into once summer arrived.
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It was time for Choate to call his wife Janet.
“She is asking me a hundred questions,’’ Choate recalled Wednesday in his sparsely decorated new office at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“This is a little stressful,’’ he told her.
“You want to talk stressful, try being married to you,’’ she replied.
“OK, touché on that,” he responded.
Once they had time to talk it through and make a decision, Choate decided he couldn’t pass up Muschamp’s offer.
Prior to his move to Washington State to coach linebackers in 2012, Choate spent six years at Boise State, serving in several roles, including running backs coach, linebackers coach and nickelbacks coach. The one constant was Choate’s role as special-teams coordinator, a position he now has with the Gators in addition to coaching the outside linebackers.
Choate said there was one other constant during his time at Boise State, a factor that played a huge role in his decision to leave UTEP after only three months to come to Florida.
“The one thing that always kind of ate at me a little bit in my time at Boise was, really, no matter what we did, it would be really hard for us to get an opportunity to play for a national championship,’’ Choate said. “And that’s not the case here. If we take care of our business, we’re going to have a chance to play for a national championship.
“I think anybody in this business who is a true competitor wants the opportunity to compete at the highest level. And that was a huge draw for me, to compete in this conference, at the University of Florida the expectations are high and you know that going in, but the roars are going to be high as well.”
In Choate’s six seasons at Boise State on head coach Chris Petersen’s staff, the Broncos were 73-6 and twice went undefeated (2006, 2009). The highest they ever finished in The Associated Press Top 25 was fourth during their 14-0 season in 2009.
Choate decided to leave Boise State to advance his career and joined first-year Washington State coach Mike Leach’s inaugural staff in January 2012. He then moved to UTEP when a former colleague at Boise State, Sean Kugler, took over the Miners and offered Choate the opportunity to be a defensive coordinator.
Choate figured he would be at UTEP for a while until that call from Muschamp early one morning a couple of weeks ago. Instead, he spent Wednesday scrambling around Florida’s football offices after taking a quick trip to Pullman to visit his family for the first time in a month.
He still has a lot to do before he gets settled at UF but Choate expects this stay to last longer than his past two.
“It’s been an interesting year for me,’’ he said. “[Coach Muschamp] and I had had conversations probably as far back as 2009, 2010, when he was at the University of Texas. We got to know each other a little bit. Quite honestly, it was a hard decision because of my relationship with Sean and the respect I have for him and the timing, but when I really took a look at it and evaluated it, it was kind of a no-brainer to jump on board here.
“The opportunity to stay involved on the defensive side here and learn from guys like [defensive coordinator] D.J. [Durkin] and Will was another big draw for me.”
Choate is also good friends with Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease. Both are Idaho natives – Choate is from St. Maries and Pease from Moscow – and both played college football in Montana. Choate was a linebacker at NAIA Montana-Western and Pease played quarterback at the University of Montana.
They also worked together on Petersen’s staff at Boise State for six seasons together from 2006-11.
Choate has not had time yet to meet with his position players and will hit the road recruiting the Florida Panhandle area during the spring evaluation period.
Asked if he still knows UTEP’s roster more than UF’s, Choate replied: “There is no question.”
That will change soon. Until then, there are more phone calls to make and details to be worked out. Choate is participating in his first press conference at UF later this afternoon.
While he will coordinate special teams, Choate said remaining involved defensively was important as he contemplated making another move so quickly. He also knows the talent level he inherits is greater than his other coaching stops.
“I know we’re going to have tremendous team speed and athleticism,’’ Choate said. “That’s a given in this league and certainly at this place. I also know there is going to be a tremendous buy-in, both on the defensive side and the kicking game.”
Don’t expect an overhaul of Florida’s special-teams units, which have excelled in recent seasons under Durkin. Choate will place his personal stamp on the units, but gradually.
“Me learning the system that’s in place here and me deciding what makes sense [is my first focus],’’ he said. “I can blend this concept in and we can tweak this a little bit. The focus for us is to make it as simple and seamless as we can for the players. They don’t need to learn a new vocabulary.
“There is a good vocabulary that is here. We just maybe need to add a technique here or there or add a tweak to a scheme here or there without making a lot of wholesale changes this first year.”