Blake Thelen has been going to Montana State football games before, in his words, he even knew what football was.
The Great Falls High senior has always been a Bobcat. He’s always wanted to wear the blue and gold jersey.
“And now that I get the chance, there’s nothing like it,” Thelen said the day before signing an admissions waiver and joining Montana State’s football roster as a preferred walk-on on December 19.
Montana State started recruiting Thelen during his junior year. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound quarterback is also one Montana’s top boys’ basketball players. As a senior, he began to blossom under center.
Last fall, Thelen completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 3,005 yards, 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. He helped lead Great Falls High to its first appearance in the Class AA playoffs in 10 years.
Down the stretch of his senior football season, new Carroll College head coach Troy Purcell started recruiting Thelen hard. Great Falls High head coach Mark Samson is the son-in-law of the late Bob Petrino Sr., one of the primary foundation layers for Carroll’s rich lineage and Purcell’s college coach in Helena in the late 1980s.
Purcell attended a few of Great Falls High’s final games last fall. But when MSU head coach Jeff Choate came to the table with an offer to join the Bobcats, Thelen jumped.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Montana State,” said Thelen, whose cousin, Braxton, played a few seasons as MSU as a cornerback in the mid-2000s. “They were my goal, always where I wanted to end up. That was the bar and I was trying to work toward that every day. So when they gave me an opportunity, I couldn’t pass it up.
“It was a lifetime full of joy in one moment. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Thelen helped the Bison experience team success on the gridiron this season for the first time in a long time. But Thelen has had a hand in leading Bob Howard’s Bison boys’ basketball team to good success throughout his high school career already.
Last season, Thelen earned All-Eastern AA honors by averaging 12.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.6 steals. The Bison advanced to the Class AA state tournament, claiming the third-place trophy. Great Falls High is considered an early favorite this season in Montana’s largest classification. The Bison are off to a 4-0 start with wins over Flathead, Glacier, Sentinel and Helena High already in the bank.
Thelen’s steady progression on the football field — he credits Samson and GFH assistant Rob Schulte, a former standout for the Montana Grizzlies, with helping him learn how to read coverage — helped the Bison shake off a four-game losing streak late in the year to beat rival Great Falls C.M. Russell for their fifth win, clinching the playoff spot in the process.
Choate took notice of the progress the Bison made with Thelen under center.
“He probably has as much to do with the resurgence of the Bison program as anybody,” Choate said. “Really, really good football player. Coach Sampson had nothing but good things to say about him.
“His dad originally started playing football here at Montana State back in the day. He was extremely excited for an opportunity to be a part of this program and will add depth and value to our quarterback room.”
Thelen joins a quarterback room that has been in a constant state of flux since Choate took over before the 2016 season. Dakota Prukop graduate transferred to Oregon, starting a domino effect that resulted in converted running back and linebacker Troy Andersen operating an unorthodox but largely successful offensive attack as MSU made the FCS Playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Andersen’s position status for next season remains unknown, although Choate said in his press conference to open the early signing period that “he needs to have the ball in his hands.” Sophomore Tucker Rovig and redshirt freshmen Casey Bauman and Ruben Beltran are quarterbacks on MSU’s roster while senior Travis Jonsen’s position is in up in the air as well.
“I think we ran a pretty sophisticated offense for high school,” Thelen said. “Coach Samson gave me some freedoms. We ran some RPO stuff, read option, stuff like that. I think that can translate to the college level pretty well. Going into my sophomore year, I really didn’t know a whole lot about coverage. I just saw a guy and threw it to him. I think Coach Samson and Coach Schulte helped me a lot in terms of reading a defense, whether they are in this defense or that defense, where the hole is, where you can attack.”
The smooth, athletic Thelen showed good touch on his intermediate and deep throws during his final prep season. He is almost certainly a few years away from being ready to contribute in the Big Sky Conference but the opportunity to prove his mettle and the many success stories forged by previous MSU walk-ons has Thelen excited for the future.
“A lot of walk-ons, Caleb Schreibeis, Chad Newell and knowing their stories, I talked it over with some family, some friends and Coach Samson and everyone agreed it was too good an opportunity to pass up,” said Thelen, who plans on studying either business finance or exercise science. “Not everybody gets this chance. The fact that I got it, I had to pounce on it.
“It just means the world to me. I know I’ll be smiling all day. Just to get this chance, it’s hard to put into words. Excited, the opportunity to go play college football at Montana State, it’s truly a dream come true.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or contributed (main). All Rights Reserved.