Youth Movement Key to Bobcats’ Success in 2017
By Danny Waldo
If the Montana State Bobcat football team makes a return to the top of the league standings this fall, many of the players responsible would not be old enough to join in the celebrations of the Bobcat faithful that would be sure to follow thanks to an infusion of young talent on the Bobcats’ roster.
When head coach Jeff Choate took over in Bozeman in the winter of 2016, he coined phrases, such as, “Ride for the brand,” and “Own the state,” in an effort to attract more young talent and overhaul a roster that had been showing signs of decline, knowing a rebuild could take time to turn into a winner. However, just over a year later, Choate and Co. have begun to own the state of Montana, in addition to enticing several out of state prospects to “Ride for the brand,” and many of those prized recruits will be counted on to produce this season, not out of necessity, but out of the coaching staff’s desire to put the best players on the field.
At first glance, roughly eight skills players who should see action on offense are either freshman or sophomores, including reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year quarterback Chris Murray.
Murray broke onto the scene last season at Sacramento State after replacing struggling starter Tyler Bruggman. Murray completed a paltry 4 of 12 passes for 104 yards in his first extensive action under center, but what impressed all those that witnessed Murray’s coming out party wasn’t what he did with his arm, but rather what he did with his legs. The freshman speedster torched the Hornet defense for 198 yards and three touchdowns. Murray would go on to lead the ‘Cats in rushing yards on the season, highlighting the year with a 142 yards and two touchdowns in leading MSU over rival Montana in the season finale.
But Murray should receive more help from his stable of young teammates, including prized recruit Troy Anderson out of Dillon. According to Choate, “There’s a lot of hype on Troy, obviously, and he’s done a really nice job.” Anderson originally thought he would see time on the defensive side of the ball, but has spent the entire fall camp at running back, impressing both the coaches and his teammates with his size and speed, reminding many Bobcat faithful of recently graduated Chad Newell, but with more speed than his predecessor.
Another true freshman that has turned some heads in fall camp has been Bozeman local Lance McCutcheon. The 6’2 athletic receiver has earned his way into the two-deep with a combination of athleticism and sure hands. During the final scrimmage of camp, McCutcheon made a smooth grab of a 26-yard toss, and then followed it up with a three-yard touchdown on a tightly contested slant route where he beat the defender to the ball. McCutcheon’s size, speed and leaping ability should make him a tough matchup for some of the league’s smaller defensive backs.
Sophomore Kevin Kassis is another receiver looking to have a breakout year after a season as the main return man on special teams. Kassis, who finished fourth on the team in all-purpose yards as a true freshman with 514, is one of the hardest working guys on the team. “I think Kevin has one of the best work ethics on the team,” said receivers coach Matt Miller. “He’s a blue collar kid, he wants to grind all day. He likes going into the lab and get a lot of film study in. You’ll see him down in the weight room, catching jugs, getting an extra lift in, and obviously he takes care of his body as well.”
That work ethic has endeared him to his teammates and created a strong bond between he and Murray. “He’s one of my go-to guys, I know I can count on him and he has great confidence in me that I’ll get him the ball.” That connection could make Murray and Kassis a lethal threat to opposing defensive backfields this season.
Other up-and-coming young guns on offense are running backs Edward Vander and Jake Roper. Roper was a heralded running back coming out of high school that opted to walk on at Boise State. However, after a redshirt season, he left the Broncos in search of a better opportunity. What was Boise State’s loss is certainly Montana State’s gain. Roper rushed for over 1,400 yards and 20 touchdowns his senior year, earning him the designation as the top prep player in Idaho in 2015.
After taking too long to make up his mind about his future college plans, Vander was forced to take the junior college route, spending one season at Saddleback College, before finding his way to Montana State. In his lone season at Saddleback, Vander was the leading rusher, breaking the 1,00 yard barrier with a rare combination of size and speed, similar to Anderson’s skill set.
But Montana State’s youthful talent isn’t confined to just the offensive side of the ball, as several underclassmen look to make an impact on Ty Gregorak’s much-improved defensive unit as well.
The impacts begin up front on the defensive line, where a pair of true sophomores look to improve upon their impressive freshman campaigns after being forced into service due to injuries. Belgrade product Derek Marks played in MSU’s final 10 games at defensive end, collecting 13 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and 0.5 sacks, while Butte Central’s Marcus Ferriter collected 19 tackles and 1 sack at the defensive end position after seeing time in all 11 games a season ago. Both young linemen should see an increase in production this season.
Another Belgrade product, sophomore Brayden Konkol looks to make a bigger impact as well after coming on strong to end the 2016 season. Konkol tallied 20 tackles a season ago, including 6 in the win over Montana, and appears to be the favorite to start at safety opposite Bryson McCabe when MSU opens the season at Washington State. Konkol has earned the reputation of being a big-time hitter in the defensive secondary, something MSU needs after giving up several big plays in the pass-happy Big Sky.
Choate has made it a point to improve the talent level on his roster, and his recruiting efforts are showing promise with the number of underclassmen expected to contribute this season. The excitement surrounding the early commitments in the 2018 recruiting class is high as well. While the Bobcats may be a year or two away in the eyes of coaches and media members around the league, something special is brewing in Bozeman. A youth movement is on in the Gallatin Valley, and the league better take notice.