BOZEMAN — With all eyes on the men under center during Montana State’s recently completed fall camp, the other players in the backfield went under the radar despite occupying perhaps the most crowded yet unproven group in the Bobcat offense.
Nick LaSane overcame a four-game suspension that started his senior season to rush for 592 yards and score three touchdowns, the top production out of an MSU running back last fall.
Montana State’s top returning running back from a season ago is now playing quarterback. Troy Andersen, the 2017 Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year, will start as the signal caller instead of the spot tailback as MSU opens its 2018 season under the Bobcat Stadium lights on Thursday against Western Illinois.
Edward Vander, MSU’s second-leading running back producer with nearly 300 yards last season, is now at the University of Utah. MSU’s starting running back for most of last season, despite Andersen’s Bobcat tailback-best 515 rushing yards, was Logan Jones. But the senior from Kalispell is out indefinitely as he recovers from a sports hernia. He rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown last season.
The only other players who touched the ball who remain on the roster are junior wide receiver Kevin Kassis (eight carries, 65 yards), sophomore scat back Tyrel Burgess (10 carries, 41 yards) and sophomore fullback R.J. Fitzgerald (1 carry, 1 yard).
With the season on the horizon, MSU is sure to play at least three and maybe as many as five players who did not take a career for the Bobcats last season.
“We will try to find the hot hand, who’s playing well at the moment, who can handle the protections, who grasps the run scheme,” Choate said during a fall camp interview. “You can see there are certain guys who are better in the tempo stuff because they can process quicker. We are going to mix tempos so you have to have guys accountable. That’s the biggest thing: who’s the most accountable guy who can get where he needs to be and get the job done and past that, who’s producing, who has the hot hand.”
During the off-season, the Bobcats added a collection of talented ball carriers. First, MSU brought Tyler Natee to campus. The former Euless (Texas) Trinity High standout — the high school gifted MSU with a collection of standouts including All-American quarterback DeNarius McGhee and former captain running back Tray Robinson — transferred to MSU from Indiana.
Before spring football, MSU head coach Jeff Choate and McGhee — now the running backs’ coach after coaching quarterbacks last season — made the move to flip junior Karl Tucker II from wide receiver to running back. Burgess moved to wide receiver for the spring but missed most of the action with an injury.
Burgess switched back to running back and, with Jones out and Tucker less than full speed, rose to the top of the depth chart. But he suffered a lower leg injury leading up to MSU’s final scrimmage and is not on the opening week depth chart.
From the position switch to an unusually long (even by Montana standards) winter, Burgess’ transition from Haines City, Florida to Bozeman, Montana challenged him to say the least. The lightning fast 5-foot-8, 160-pounder cracked the rotation as MSU’s starting kick returner.
“It took me a little while just to get used to the weather change and the culture,” Burgess said. “Throughout my freshman year, I gained more experience. Being able to adjust – it’s been good.”
“I got to learn plays that we learn this year, last year and I got to get the feel of the game and not get out there and freeze up. That will help this year.”
Tucker II enters the MSU opener as the No. 1 name on the depth chart. But he missed a good deal of camp with a lingering hamstring injury. Natee, a 6-foot, 265-pounder who once rushed for more than 100 yards in a Big Ten game, has nursed a lingering meniscus injury during camp and is not on the initial depth chart either.
That means at least one and probably two redshirt freshmen will see significant snaps behind and next to Andersen on Thursday night. Isaiah Ifanse, the 2017 Washington Gatorade Player of the Year at Bellevue High, and Lane Sumner, a speedster and former state champion sprinter from Montana Class B power Huntley Project stood out most during camp.
“Isaiah Ifanse has really good vision and quicks,” Choate said. “Lane Sumner is a really good inside zone runner. He has a really good feel for the game.
“Those guys both have a really good feel for the game. When you watch Lane he’s thick below the waist and he’s got great balance. Isaiah’s a little bow-legged, which for a running back is actually a really good thing; it makes it hard to get a square hit on him.”
Although Tucker II is listed as the No. 1, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Ifanse serves as MSU’s first down and short-yardage back. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder has shown elite field vision, a physical running style and a high football IQ to rise up the depth chart.
“Isaiah has been good,” Tucker II said. “Being a freshman, asking a bunch of him jumping in with the 1s and 2s. It’s a lot for a freshman. He’s running around, learning a lot of plays, swimming around but he’s doing a great job.”
Sumner carried the ball more than any other running back during MSU’s two fall camp scrimmages. The 5-foot-8, 181-pounder has shown a knack for production all summer. In the Badlands (Montana-North Dakota) All-Star game in June, Sumner notched 31 carries for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
The final piece to the running backs puzzle for MSU could be redshirt freshman Maleek Barkley. The transfer from Arkansas was slow to earn full clearance for full contact during fall camp. When he did, he dazzled.
The half brother of former MSU All-Big Sky running back Shawn Johnson led the Bobcat offense in rushing yards during the second scrimmage thanks in part to a 42-yard touchdown run. The former 3-star recruit out of Lake Travis High in Austin, Texas showed good vision, impressive agility and elite speed in the live action.
With Jones, Natee and Burgess almost certainly out and Tucker II’s full health also in question, a parade of new faces could and likely will line up in the Bobcat backfield on Thursday. Over the last two seasons, now absent quarterback Chris Muray led the team in rushing. His 1,124 yards led the entire Big Sky last season. With so many question marks for MSU’s backfield, a similar narrative could play out once again, Choate said.
“Last year, our leading rusher was our quarterback and I would not be surprised if that was the case again,” Choate said. “The whole thing is still a work in progress.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.