by Danny Waldo
While confidence is oozing out of the football offices inside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, the rest of the Big Sky Conference coaches and media are not exactly sharing in the enthusiasm exhibited by head coach Jeff Choate and his staff as MSU prepares for the 2018 football season. Both the media and the league’s coaches picked Montana State to finish eighth in the 13-member league, albeit that was after it was announced that starting quarterback Chris Murray would miss the entire 2018 campaign due to academics
Many have viewed the loss of Murray, the 2016 Freshman of the Year in the Big Sky and an All-League performer a year ago, as a setback, but MSU sees it as an opportunity to get better. Choate has often described Murray as the quarterback by default since the other options on the roster didn’t pose much of a threat to the speedy signal-caller, regardless of his struggles in the passing game, but now he feels the Bobcats have a chance to solidify the position by having the best man win in a true quarterback competition. “You can see if you read between the lines, we kind of saw this coming,” Choate said. “We added another arm, we’ve planned in the best way that we could to be able to address this. I think there will be really good competition at the quarterback position.”
The quarterback competition may garner most of the headlines heading into MSU’s season-opener on August 30th versus Western Illinois, but if the Bobcats are to exceed league expectations in Choate’s third year, it will be because of a vastly improved defense. MSU has added depth and experience across the board, something they have lacked since the new staff took over in Bozeman three years ago. “I think we’re pretty good on defense,” Choate said. “I think at times we’ve over the last two years, we’re sound, we did what we had to do. But now we have more length, we have explosiveness on the edges of our defense, we have athleticism in the secondary. I think we’re very good from tackle to tackle with our interior guys.”
Headlining the Bobcat defense is a formidable front seven that has benefitted from the transfer of a pair of FBS defensive ends, but also returns two
honorable mention All-Big Sky tackles in Tucker Yates and Zach Wright. The pair combined to collect 76 tackles, 3 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in leading a ‘Cat defense that ranked second in scoring defense, third in total defense, and fifth in rushing and passing defense in the Big Sky.
However, MSU ranked dead last in sacks in the conference, collecting a total of 17 on the season. Enter FBS transfers Bryce Sterk of the University of Washington and Dante Sparaco of the University of Colorado, a pair of athletic defensive ends that should help increase that total.
Sterk was originally recruited to UW by Choate, but as the Huskies rose to the top of the FBS ranks, Sterk’s playing time took a nose dive. After redshirting in 2015, he saw action in two games in 2016, but not once in 2017. He knew it was time for a change of scenery.
“This guy has everything it takes to be a Pac-12 player, but he’s got to have the confidence and a belief in himself,” Choate said. “One of the things I told him when we recruited him here at Montana State, I said, ‘All I’m asking for you to do is to believe in yourself as much as I’ve believed in you twice.’”
Sterk, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound Buck end gives Choate the kind of long and athletic edge rusher he has craved since coming to Bozeman, and he could be paired opposite another end from the same mold in Sparaco. Sparaco, 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, recorded three tackles and a half sack in seven games last season in Colorado before breaking his hand and missing the rest of his freshman season.
Behind the front line, MSU’s depth at linebacker gives defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak some options. Senior Grant Collins returns after missing time last season due to injury, as does veteran Josh Hill. Injuries at the linebacking position last season forced MSU to move freshman Troy Anderson to the defensive side of the ball and Brayden Konkol from his natural safety position. However, the experience they gained last season has helped add to the depth at the position this year. “It’s ridiculous. We have a ton of depth right now,” senior Grant Collins said. “A lot of these guys have playing time whether it was from people getting injured last year or whatnot. But I mean we just have a lot of depth and a lot of really good players out there to fill the roles.”
Others expected to see time at linebacker include Balue Chapman and Jacob Hadley, as both return from injuries suffered in 2017, as well as Michael
Jobman and Chad Kanow.
The defensive secondary should continue to improve as well, now that Tyrell Thomas and Jalen Cole have a year of experience under their belts. The duo both played key roles in wins down the stretch last season as true freshman, with Thomas breaking up the final play that sealed MSU’s win over the Griz last November. Damien Washington is the Bobcats’ most experienced corner, and a pair of twin freshmen, Ty’Rese and Ty’Rhae Gibson will look to contribute as well. Brayden Konkol will slide back to his natural position at safety, and MSU brought in another FBS transfrer in safety Jahque Alleyne, who saw playing time in the ACC at Virginia Tech.
While things seem set on the defensive side of the ball, the same is not true of the offense, starting with the quarterback
position. It was announced in July that Chris Murray would miss the 2018 season, opening the door for a four-man race to win the job. The battle to command MSU’s offense comes down to freshman Casey Bauman, redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig, sophomore Troy Anderson and
junior Travis Jonsen.
Rovig served as Chris Murray’s primary backup last season, while Anderson spent time at both running back and linebacker as MSU battled through some injuries. The two wildcards in the race are Bauman and Jonsen. Bauman, a true freshman out of Sumas, WA, has the moxie that Choate is looking for in a quarterback, but lacks experience at the collegiate level. The most dynamic of the group could be Jonsen, the former Oregon Duck signal caller who spent last season at Riverside Community College in California after losing out in the quarterback competition in Eugene.
\Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of working behind a talented offensive line that returns four players who started at least one game a season ago, led by senior Alex Neale who started all 11 games at center last season in helping MSU lead the Big Sky in rushing yards.
At the running back position, bruiser Tyler Natee looks to contribute after transferring from Indiana University, while MSU also welcomes a pair of talented freshman in Isaiah Ifanse from powerful Bellevue High School in Washington and Lane Sumner from Huntley Project. The running backs also could benefit from Troy Anderson’s services if he does not win the quarterback competition. Anderson rushed for 515 yards and five touchdowns in earning Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2017.
MSU’s new quarterback will have a variety of pass-catchers to choose from, although few of them have any game experience at the Division I level. The Bobcats most experienced receiver is Kevin Kassis, who caught 21 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns a year ago. Behind him, Bozeman native Lance McCutcheon caught three passes for 128 yards and a touchdown, but will be looking to make an even bigger impact in his sophomore season. Other receivers looking to make an impact are Maleek Barkley, a transfer from the University of Arkansas, sophomore Willie Patterson, and senior John D’Agostino, who returns to the field for the first time since 2016 when he caught 19 passes for 176 yards.
For updates from MSU’s fall football camp or more information, log on to www.msubobcats.com.
Danny Waldo is a local freelance writer who lives for football season, where he covers the Bobcats and Bozeman Hawks. •