With Montana State beginning its second fall camp under Jeff Choate this week, Skyline Sports will break down MSU’s roster by highlighting prominent battles for playing time in each position group.
The players: Mac Bignell (6-foot, 217-pound senior); Josh Hill (5-11, 210-pound sophomore); Lukas McCarthy (6-1, 230-pound senior); Jakob McCarthy (6-2, 235-pound senior); Balue Chapman (6-foot-1, 210-pound redshirt freshman).
What’s at stake: Montana State head coach Jeff Choate will be the first to tell you it’s not a question of who but rather a question of where when it comes to MSU’s linebackers.
Bignell, a two-time All-Big Sky selection and a team captain for the second straight season, and Hill, a starter for all 11 games in 2016, will start in 2017. Bignell could play either Will linebacker, which he played in during spring practices, or Sam, where he has piled up 35 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. Hill would play either Mike, which he played during the spring, or Will, where Hill made 54 tackles and snagged two interceptions last season.
Where Hill and Bignell line up will be influenced by the progress made by the McCarthy twins and Balue Chapman, a wiry and aggressive Sam linebacker from Bozeman. Lukas McCarthy is currently Montana State’s No. 1 Mike linebacker. Jakob McCarthy has been taking reps during fall camp at both inside linebacker positions. Chapman has been playing Sam with the No. 2 defense while also carving out a pass rushing role in MSU’s nickel package, a set in which Bignell and Hill play the inside spots.
“We know who the guys are but now it’s where do they fit in?,” Choate said following Wednesday’s practice. “Balue Chapman is starting to emerge as a guy that can get us some quality reps in pass rush situations in our nickel package. Bignell is going to be a highly-productive, consistent player for us. Luke McCarthy thus far has had an excellent camp. Josh is such a consistent, reliable guy. Jakob has flashed at times.”
How they fared in 2016: Bignell earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a junior. The Drummond native piled up 97 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, all team-highs. He also broke up two passes and forced two fumbles.
Hill had 54 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions and a forced fumble in his first year as a starter. The Kalispell Glacier product earned Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week after notching eight tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception and forcing a fumble in MSU’s 24-17 win over rival Montana in Missoula to cap last season.
The McCarthy brothers came to Montana State as transfers from Fullerton College. Lukas played linebacker for 10 games in 2016, totaling 17 tackles, mostly as a reserve or on special teams. Jakob played the first part of the year at inside linebacker before moving to Buck end to aid in depth. He made 11 tackles and a sack as a backup.
Chapman, the 2015 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year, redshirted last season and put on about 10 pounds.
The case for Bignell: Bignell will be a starter for every moment he’s healthy for the rest of his Montana State career. He is indisputably MSU’s best player. He will likely play both Sam and Will throughout the year while also playing inside linebacker in MSU’s nickel package as well.
“We need to get our best 11 out there,” Choate said. “We are still working through that a little bit but we do feel like Mac has the luxury to swing. That helps us. In our nickel package, he played in the box anyway. He’s very familiar with playing the Will linebacker, the boundary inside linebacker position but he’s also had a ton of work at Sam too.”
The case for Hill: It remains to be seen if Hill could handle the rigors of playing Mike linebacker, but in Ty Gregorak’s odd front defense, the inside linebackers play field and boundary. The Mike spot is not the traditional position it is in a 4-3 defense, so the downhill nature is not as profound.
Hill has a knack for finding the football and is as consistent a performer as MSU has on its roster. He is likely best suited for Will simply because that means a McCarthy could get on the field, giving MSU’s linebackers a more veteran presence in its starting lineup.
“Playing 11 games as a freshman gives Hill a lot of game experience and I think it gives him a lot of confidence,” Choate said. “I think the thing that is just so great about Josh is he’s such a smart player but he’s such a consistent performer. You can always count on if his ceiling is here, he’s going to give you about this every single rep. He’s an easy guy to game plan around.”
The case for Lukas McCarthy: As Montana State enters the second week of fall camp, Lukas McCarthy has been the more productive and consistent of the two twins.
He gives Montana State a physical, tough player in the middle of its defense. The question remains if he can handle being MSU’s primary play caller. If he can, he will give the second level of Montana State’s defense an added element of size it needs.
The case for Jakob McCarthy: It’s unlikely Jakob McCarthy pushes his way into the starting lineup unless he beats out his twin brother. But he should provide depth at the very least and contribute heavily on special teams. If he can out-perform his twin, he too would be a sizeable addition to the starting lineup for an otherwise undersized group.
The case for Chapman: Like Bignell and Hill, Chapman will see the field in some capacity because of his slippery, quick style. It’s just a matter of if he gets starter reps or plays in specific.
Chapman engaged in a heated battle for the Sam linebacker spot during spring drills with fellow redshirt freshman Jacob Hadley. That competition ended abruptly when Hadley tore his ACL in the Sonny Holland spring game the final day of spring practices.
If Bignell, Hill and Chapman form MSU’s starting linebackers, the group will among the Big Sky’s quickest but also one of the league’s smallest.
What they must accomplish during fall camp: If you include the improvement of sophomore Walker Cozzie, Montana State has a good problem on its hands. The group includes six players who could contribute in games. The Bobcats also have a talented group of freshmen who could provide depth, including Kalispell native Tadan Gilman and California product Chad Kanow, the latter of which has ben rotating in at Buck end as well.
Also on the roster: Tadan Gilman (6-0, 200-pound true freshman); Sean Opland (6-foot, 200-pound redshirt freshman); Koni Dole (6-0, 210-pound junior); Sam Aguilar (6-1, 210-pound true freshman); Jackson McCleery (6-1, 225-pound true freshman).
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.