BOZEMAN, Montana — JoJo Henderson summed up Montana State’s fall camp position battles defensively accurately, at least when it comes to reflecting the mindsets of the players.
“From the beginning of camp, nobody’s name was written in pen. It was all pencil,” Henderson said. “It’s all up for grabs.”
Truth be told, it would take a Herculean effort to unseat hulking senior defensive end Bryce Sterk from the edge of the Bobcat defense. Although fellow former Washington transfer Amandre Williams has been good enough at Buck end, Sterk is playing on the “field” side of MSU’s defensive front.
It would’ve been a huge upset if senior captain Derek Marks, a starter for parts of the last three seasons, wouldn’t have had one of the starting spots on Montana State’s defensive line. It was unlikely that any Bobcat, even Henderson as a senior, would overtake the All-Big Sky Conference senior safety duo of captain Brayden Konkol and former Virginia Tech transfer Jahque Alleyne.
And if you are going to move the unanimous first-team all-league quarterback from offense to Sam linebacker, you best start Troy Andersen on the edge opposite Sterk.
Since MSU began its fall camp the first week of August, the rest of the battles — from both corner positions to nickel back to inside linebacker — have raged red hot. Henderson, a part-time starter each of the last season seasons, was specifically talking about a heated cornerback battle that got even spicier with the undisclosed injury suffered by senior All-Big Sky selection Greg “Munchie” Filer III.
“Whoever takes the opportunity and seizes it, makes the best of it will be the one on the field,” Henderson emphasized.
When Montana State landed a pair of highly rated prospects from the Trinity League in Southern California, it seemed like a recruiting coup for Choate. In the head coach’s first full recruiting class, Montana State inked Jalen Cole, a three-star recruit ranked by Hero Sports as the second-best incoming prospect in the entire FCS. The Bobcats also signed Tyrel Thomas, an uber-aggressive man press corner out of St. John Bosco Prep, one of the most powerful and respected high school football programs in the country.
Thomas broke into the starting lineup almost right away. By the second half of their freshmen year, Cole was dominating most of the snaps at nickel back.
But the pair of undersized, supremely confident defensive backs have struggled with their health ever since. Thomas battled a foot injury then a hamstring injury last season, eventually missing MSU’s two playoff games. Cole suffered a frightening head/neck injury on a bruising collision in Montana State’s 29-25 win over rival Montana in Missoula.
Independently of those injuries, Filer began to master the nuances of MSU’s defensive scheme and rose to a starting role opposite Thomas. He ended up with three interceptions and an honorable mention all-league nod in his first season after transferring from Compton College.
During the first scrimmage of the ‘Cats recently completed fall camp, Filer suffered an arm injury that caused him to appear on the Bobcat Stadium sideline wearing a cast on his lower arm and a sling. His injury is unknown as is the timetable for his return.
With the release of Montana State’s first depth chart for the 2019 season earlier this week, it’s clear Filer is out indefinitely. Senior Damian Washington is listed as the starter at left cornerback, ahead of Thomas, a 5-foot-8, 168-pound dynamo that is just now regaining full health.
“I finally found my own routine to keeping me healthy,” Thomas said. “Everyone has their own way of figuring out what they need to have to keep them healthy, to keep them on track. Everything doesn’t work for everybody so you have to find your own little playbook that works for you.
“My biggest challenge has been staying healthy. I never found my balance to keep me right and keep me in my best health. Playing as a true freshman was a big challenge. I didn’t know what I was really getting myself into. Now I know how to take care of myself.”
Redshirt freshman Ty’Rhae Gibson, a raw yet physical 6-foot-1, 170-pounder out of Paraclete High southern California, is listed as the starter in front of redshirt freshman Level Price Jr., a former walk-on who, like Thomas, prepped at St. John Bosco.
Those four along with Gibson’s twin brother, Ty’Rese, and even sophomore nickel back turned safety Ty Okada will likely see time in Montana State’s season opener at Texas Tech on Saturday.
“You are going to see a variety of guys play,” Choate said on Monday. “We need to see a lot of guys on film. We have to see some of these other guys play. That’s how you are going to get better and that’s how you get a gage of truly where they are at.
“We are in the preseason. You see it in the NFL all the time. This is our preseason.”
Washington has been a starter at times since he was a true freshman. After prepping at Charter Oak Academy in Southern California, he was Montana State’s primary nickel back down the stretch of the 2016 season as a rookie. As a sophomore, he rotated in at nickel with Cole. Last season, Washington provided depth behind Cole, Thomas and Filer.
Throughout Washington’s career, Choate has leaned on the wise, personable defensive back to gage the temperature of the locker room. Now Washington will be leaned on even more heavily to help the Gibsons and Price learn the ropes on the perimeter.
“He sees a lot of things and he’s been around the program since I got here,” Choate said. “He’s a guy I will call in my office and say, ‘What are you seeing Dame, what do you think about this, what’s going on here?’ He’s super valuable to me in that regard. I have a ton of respect for the kid.”
For the past 20 years, Texas Tech has thrown the ball more prevalently and prolifically than almost any team in college football. Despite new head coach Matt Wells taking over, the Red Raiders are again expected to spread it around with an “Air Raid”-like offense lead by renowned offensive coordinator David Yost.
“You don’t want to overthink those things,” Washington said. “No game is too big for us and we can’t think we are not good enough. We have to feel we are a championship football program no matter who we are preparing for.”
Gibson rose above the rest of the young corners to earn a starting spot in what is sure to be a trying opener. Choate praised his improved maturity and his physical playing style.
“He’s a 6-foot corner and those are hard to come by at our level,” Choate said. “He’s got good speed. But the thing that separates him is his toughness. He’s a very physical player and he’s very competitive too.”
Thomas struggled with a foot injury and a hamstring injury since arriving at MSU. He has honed in his physical routine in an effort to stay healthy. But he fell behind early in the heated competition because he had to finish a summer class that wrapped up on the first two days of Montana State’s fall camp.
Choate said he was “holding it over his head” until he saw the grade.
“That’s why I want to make him hurt a little bit because that means those guys are up three practices on him before he gets a chance to get out here,” Choate said. “He might re evaluate some of his priorities. He actually did really well in his summer classes.”
Once Choate saw the grade, Thomas returned to practice and has been competitive. On Monday, Choate praised his man-to-man ability, adding “I know his goal is to be a starter by the time we are playing for real.”
Price has been one of the breakout players of the last nine months. He suffered what amounted to a season-ending injury less than a week into fall camp last fall. Since he’s returned to full strength, the surprisingly physical, aggressive 5-foot-8, 170-pouder has turned heads.
“I think a guy who is going to be really special this year is Level Price,” MSU senior captain Kevin Kassis said. “He’s a hard-nosed kid who kept his head down last year and now he’s seeing it pay dividends. I’m really excited for him.”
On Monday, Choate said “You can never have enough DBs.” On Saturday, that notion will be tested full force against a team led by sophomore quarterback Alan Bowman and NFL-ready wide receiver T.J. Vasher, a 6-foot-6 freak athlete who had multiple offers to play basketball in Power 5 conferences along with football offers from the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Texas Tech’s fast-paced, four-wide offense is sure to test a collection of MSU cornerbacks eager to prove themselves.
“Depth at corner is going to be important,” Washington said. “The more guys we can walk out there throughout a game is big time for us. We have a bunch of guys who could be starters right now. We can all play and I’m excited to see what this season looks like for us.”