The script has flipped at Montana State over the past year, at least in terms of the way Tim Cramsey is working with his offense.
Last fall, Bobcat Nation hung on reports from each practice wondering who would be the man to replace four-year starter and All-America quarterback DeNarius McGhee. This fall, there’s no doubt who MSU’s starting quarterback is.
Last fall, Cramsey, MSU’s offensive coordinator, tried to put Dakota Prukop, Jake Bleskin and Quinn McQueary in positions to succeed in order to determine a starter. With Prukop firmly entrenched as a preseason All-Big Sky and All-America player at the controls of Cramsey’s offense, the third-year coordinator is trying to push Prukop by making him push his comfort zone.
“This is a different fall camp for me because last year, I had to put Dakota in a position to be successful and I had to put Jake in a situation to be successful,” Cramsey said following Monday morning’s practice, the second of MSU’s 2015 fall camp. “This year, it’s the exact opposite. Let’s put Dakota in a situation where he’s uncomfortable and let’s put Jake in a situation where he’s uncomfortable.”
Last season, Prukop set the Big Sky on fire as MSU screamed to a 7-2 start. Prukop had games with eight and six total touchdowns and set multiple rushing yardage records for an MSU quarterback before a knee injury against Portland State derailed his and MSU’s season. The Bobcats lost two straight down the stretch to finish 8-5. The Texas native piled up 3,525 yards of total offense and 31 total touchdowns, including 932 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Cramsey is well aware of Prukop’s running ability so this August, he’s trying to force Prukop to polish his pocket presence as best he can.
“There’s always stuff you have to work on and pocket presence is what all quarterbacks are working on,” Prukop said on Monday. “Coach Cramsey’s favorite phrase is he wants us all to be comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s kind of what I live by.”
Despite his status not just as Montana State’s starter under center but as the presumed alpha dog of Big Sky quarterbacks, Prukop worked tirelessly this summer to improve. He spent a few different weeks in California training with quarterback guru George Whitfield. Whitfield’s vast array of drills and similar philosophy in cultivating uncomfortable situations helped Prukop hone his footwork and attentiveness in the pocket.
“I think he’s doing a much better job in the pocket, which was our emphasis through spring and what he’s been spending so much time on with George,” Cramsey said. “I can’t be with him that time of year so that’s a great opportunity for him to go get with someone. That was our big talk with him being in red (non-contact jersey) in the springtime and that. ‘Let’s keep you in the pocket, get you to be a better pocket passer’ not because I’m trying to take his skill level away. Don’t misunderstand: he’s going to be running the football. But if I’m a defense coming to play us, I’m going to find a way to keep that son of a gun in the pocket. Let’s not make that comfortable for him.”
Last season, Prukop ran 159 times, 43 more than any other Bobcat. He averaged almost six yards per carry despite being sacked 23 times and losing 180 yards. His 16 carries per game is something Cramsey would like to see fall this season. The offensive coordinator said he wants Prukop to be tackled eight or less times per outing. If the signal caller can get out of bounds, that’s the ideal situation and won’t count toward his new hit limit.
“What’s going to happen is we are going to call the plays that work and we will go from there,” Prukop said with a laugh in Park City, Utah in an interview conducted during the Big Sky Kickoff media conference. “He’s always told me that he’d rather have a wounded soldier than a dead hero. Last year when I got injured and I was out, I was no use to the team. Now it’s up to me to take smart hits because it wears and tears on your body. But with the stable of running backs we’ve got and the offensive line, I don’t think I’ll be touched too much.”
Prukop said he and Cramsey have been watching film of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in an effort to replicate the All-Pro’s pocket savvy. After Monday’s practice, Prukop talked about the “Rule of 10,000 hours”, a theory that essentially proves practice makes perfect. He says he starts doing repetitions of things like footwork, throwing motion and his release in the evenings at his home. Once he’s done it close to 1,000 times, he’ll bring it onto the field.
“Then you bring it to practice for one-on-ones and it takes about 1,000 reps to do something in practice,” Prukop said. “Then once you get to 5,000 reps, you can bring it to the game. That’s how you get to 10,000 reps.”
“We throw with our feet. Your arm doesn’t have a lot to do with it. Any ball, if there’s wobble on the ball — I threw a short ball today because I put no hip into it, didn’t fire off my back leg — but it’s all your feet. That takes practice.”
Montana State returns four starters up front on the offensive line and five players with starting experience. Joel Horn started all 13 games at center last season, earning third-team All-Big Sky honors in the process. He and Prukop have honed their rapport over the last year-plus and Horn said he can tell intangible improvements in his quarterback.
“He looks like he understands the game a little better,” Horn said. “He knows what’s expected of him and what to expect on game day. He seems to have that maturity level as a quarterback you hope to have on the team.”
Prukop is a primary reason the MSU offense is receiving so much preseason praise. But he’s certainly not the only reason. The stout offensive line is a key as is a stable of running backs that includes captain Chad Newell, a junior who scored five touchdowns in MSU’s 47-40 playoff loss to South Dakota State. The receiving corps may lack a star but it could go 10-deep. And the tight ends are led by physical marvel Miami transfer Beau Sandland.
Montana State set a school record by scoring 496 points a season ago. That was with a new starting quarterback, a group of running backs that, outside of Shawn Johnson, had very little game experience and a trio of freshmen wide receivers (Mitch Herbert, Justin Paige, Jayshawn Gates) learning in their first years playing college football. Teams have had an off-season to scout Cramsey’s unorthodox offense, but Ash said very little will change this fall.
“The window dressing will change, the exact formations will change, some of the uses of personnel will change,” Ash said. “But it’s still going to be the same offense that we ran last year. And we know that teams have had a whole off-season to prepare for that so we know our challenge is significant. We are not going to just walk out there and chalk up yards just because we did it last year. Teams are smart. They will have worked on it and we have to be ready for that.”
Montana State’s offense will continue to get plenty of ink as the No. 11 Bobcats approach their opener on Thursday, September 3 against Division II Fort Lewis. Prukop and junior guard J.P. Flynn are preseason All-America picks. Many believe MSU will surpass the 3,177 yards it rushed for last year and threaten 500 points. The pieces seem to be in place, at least on paper.
But Monday, the Bobcats looked sloppy at times, dropping passes in handfuls during a non-padded practice filled with energy but lacking polish. Following the session, Cramsey did not hold his tongue in his evaluation of his charges.
“We have to throw and catch, man,” Cramsey said. “That’s the talk we had right after we finished. You can say you’ve got weapons, you’ve got this quarterback and this tight end and all these running backs, whatever. But you have to do the fundamentals first and that’s what we are preaching. We are not going to be good because of that, because of the hype. We are going to be good because we are going to throw the ball and always catch it and execute. We have to tone up on that and continuing to improve on that. We have to throw and catch better than we did today. Period.”
Story by Colter Nuanez. Photos by Brooks Nuanez