BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate has strived to forge a quarterback competition at Montana State since Dakota Prukop first declared his intention to transfer to Oregon just weeks after Choate took his first college head coaching job in December of 2015.
Three days into Montana State’s first true battle to find a replacement for quarterback Chris Murray and competition remains wide open.
“I don’t know if we got any more clarity today,” Choate, MSU’s third-year head coach, said following Sunday’s practice. “Every night, I go to bed and I think, ‘We’ve got this figured out.’ And every day after practice, my mind is a little bit different. I’m excited to get to Saturday.”
Saturday marks Montana State’s first scrimmage of fall camp. The live session will cap an eight-day stretch of wide-open practices in which the Bobcats have often used two fields outside Bobcat Stadium in an effort to get as many individual and team repetitions as possible for every player on their roster. That includes the quarterbacks.
On the first day, converted running back/linebacker Troy Andersen earned the nod as the quarterback who had the best day. On Saturday, true freshman Casey Bauman stood out with his “live arm”, MSU head coach Jeff Choate said. On Sunday, Choate said Tucker Rovig, the only player in the position battle who entered fall camp with any experience at the position in the program, reaffirmed his candidacy.
“Tucker had a bounce-back day today,” Choate said of the 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman from Boise . “Tucker was probably the best guy today in some respects.
“I could see some of the of the install catch up with Casey, but Casey made some tremendous throws. He’s got a very, very good arm, and he’s got a little bit of moxie about him. He’s got that quarterback feel, if that makes sense.
“Troy, when he ran the ball looked really good today, he made a couple of bad decisions in the pass game.
“Travis (Jonsen) is kind of working through that foot (injury), this is the first practice he’s made it all the way through, and he did some things leadership-wise that I thought were very, very positive today.”
The Montana State coaching staff alerted the team to Murray’s academic struggles as the spring semester wound down. The riveting yet sporadic sophomore started 16 games and rushed for more than 2,200 yards over the last two seasons, earning Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2016 but struggling to complete 50 percent of his passes both campaigns. Most of the Bobcat players already knew a quarterback competition would highlight fall camp whether Murray was eligible or not.
Choate said 86 players stayed in Bozeman or reported early this summer. The player-run practices that played out each day helped the team adjust to the idea of competing without Murray as the triggerman.
“Throughout the summer, we threw more than in my past couple summers with a bunch of different guys,” MSU junior wide receiver Kevin Kassis said. “When you have a bunch of guys, you have to start establishing timing with multiple quarterbacks just in case because injuries can happen or whoever wins the job. We took that initiative and threw a little bit more this summer.”
MSU added Jonsen in January with the intention of the former four-star recruit pushing Murray during spring practices. But Jonsen slipped on the ice, breaking his foot and missing the entire spring. Three days in, he has had to ease back into the action.
“It was frustrating but things happen so I just had to move forward, keep my head in it,” Jonsen, a former Oregon and Riverside Community College signal caller, said on Sunday. “Every meeting, it was a mental battle just staying in it, learning the plays.
“Injuries happen. I didn’t really learn anything from being injured. It’s five steps back but I’m able to make myself move forward now.”
Jonsen has been inconsistent with his release and has struggled with his accuracy the first few days of camp. He’s also had to sit out of certain drills because of pain in his injured foot. But with the ball in his hands, he’s shown flashes of the player who earned recognition as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country coming out of Servite High in Anaheim, California.
On Saturday, he lined up at wide receiver. He burned down the sideline and caught a perfectly thrown 60-yard touchdown pass from Andersen. Although Jonsen said, “I don’t want to call myself a receiver any time soon,” Choate said he wants to find a way to get the ball into the dynamic junior’s hands even if Jonsen does not win the QB battle.
“I think the possibilities are endless,” Choate said. “He can do a lot of things. When he has the ball in his hands, he is pretty good. He got loose over there yesterday during a period and I was like, ‘huh, ok, that looks pretty good. How do we get that done?’ I think we have a lot of guys like that?
“How do we get Willie Patterson and Kevin Kassis their touches. Tyrel Burgess is having a good couple first days of camp and I’m really happy for him because his injury in the spring was nagging and things didn’t go his way. We are going to have that problem not just with Travis but with a number of guys. That’s what fall camp is for. Our leaders and playmakers have to emerge.”
Rovig was the first quarterback recruit for Choate’s second class. With Murray taking online classes back home in California and both Brady McChesney and Kamden Brown forced into retirement due to injury, all of a sudden the redshirt freshman from Boise is the veteran of the quarterback room.
He split reps with Murray during the spring but struggled to find confidence, a rhythm or deal with the reworking of his mechanics by MSU quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Bob Cole.
“Spring for me was a really rough period of practice and this summer, even this fall, I’ve tried to improve on my leadership and my confidence,” Rovig said. “I feel like with the confidence that it’s helped me believe in myself more, trust myself more and with that confidence, it’s helped my leadership because I can talk to people and be vocal.”
The struggles of the last quarterback standing combined with Jonsen’s health issues and the uncertainty that comes with the prospect of starting a true freshman at the most pivotal offensive position on the field, caused Andersen to spend the summer relearning his high school offensive position.
The Dillon product led the Beavers to the Class A state title as a high school senior in 2016 before taking the Big Sky by storm, earning Freshman of the Year honors by becoming the rare modern-day football player who contributed on offense and defense. Andersen played linebacker exclusively in the spring but Choate acknowledged that he would be a full-time offensive player this fall, whether that means at quarterback or running back.
“I think if you were to ask the guys on our team, coaches aside, ‘what do you think Troy can play’, they would say, ‘Just about anything,’” Choate said. “He is big, tall, fast, smart, strong. He could play DB, he could play linebacker, he could play rush end, he could play tight end, receiver, running back, he can play quarterback. Probably with the exception of interior offensive and defensive line, he could play any position on the field.
“Now it’s about giving him the time to master that. If we feel like it’s a flip of the coin, I’m going to make sure he touches the ball 15 or 20 times a game somehow, someway, whether that’s Wildcat quarterback, lining up at tailback. We know he is going to be a critical and important part of our offense. It’s just a matter of is he the guy? Can he master the pass concepts? Can he be a decision maker when the bullets are flying? That’s a pretty unique guy.”
Three practices in, Andersen has made a few poor decisions with the football but also shown raw ability, good command of the operation of the sometimes chaotic practice style and surprising zip on his passes.
“I’m making steps every day,” Andersen said. “I’m trying to take it one step at a time. Coach Cole and all the other quarterbacks helped me a lot to try to stay in the flow of the offense and what I’m supposed to do.
“I just try to work as hard as I can every day,” Andersen said.. “We will find someone to play quarterback. If it’s me, that would cool but if not, whatever it takes to win.”
Almost the entire practice session Sunday was closed to the public and the media. With just his teammates and coaches watching, Rovig took a step forward and reasserted himself as a contender, Choate said.
“We have some good competition,” Choate said. “Tucker struggled a little bit early. But the competitor in him came out. That’s what I’m looking for: who’s the guy who is going to bounce back and fight and say, ‘This is my job.’ You have to have some dog in you. You can’t lie down and take it. You have to keep fighting. I was pleased to see that today.”
The reality of mobility on the depth chart is a newfound factor for Choate when it comes to finding his next signal caller. He hopes that reality helps the battle stay heated.
“We would talk about Chris having a bad day at practice, ‘Well who are you going to play, coach?’ Not that he would say it that way but even myself, ‘who was I going to play?’” Choate said. “Now we have some options.
“When things are going good, it’s easy to relax. To have that guy behind you, he’s not going to take that day off. That puts you back in your spot. That’s really going to benefit us tremendously.”
Editor’s note: Interviews conducted by Brooks Nuanez of Skyline Sports.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.