After more than a year of speculation about his potential struggles in the classroom, Montana State announced on Wednesday afternoon that junior starting quarterback Chris Murray will miss the 2018 season to focus on academics.
“Chris is obviously an important part of this team,” Montana State third-year head coach Jeff Choate said in a press release, “but everyone that enters this program and this University knows that academics are the top priority. This will be a year for Chris to get his priorities in order and raise his academic work to the standard that MSU and this football program demand.”
In a conference call with Skyline Sports and the Billings Gazette, Choate emphasized that just because Murray, formerly a kinesiology major who is now pursuing general studies, is an athlete does not mean he loses his rights as a student, elaborating that the wording in the press release was intentionally vague to protect Murray’s privacy.
“It is an academic issue and if I got into details, I know it would provide more clarity and less questions but I think in respect for Chris and per university policy, I need to keep things as simple and straight forward as I can,” Choate said.
Choate said he and his coaching staff have “planned for this since (Murray’s) grades came out last spring.” He said the staff knew there was potential for an issue to occur but “didn’t really get finality or closure from the University” until Monday.
“But we had planned for this,” Choate said. “Hope for the best, plan for the worst scenario. While Chris has been working out with the team, he has not been taking reps in (player-run practices). He’s been a facilitator.
“One of the things I spoke to Chris about was the most important thing for him to do now is to own this, accept responsibility and move forward in a positive light. This can be a real defining moment for him if he chooses to battle through this, fight through this. In my conversations with both Chris and his family, I think that’s what he intends to do is to utilize this as a redshirt year for him, get himself right and get back into good standing academically and come back to the team.”
Choate said the program has been well-aware of Murray’s academic issues for quite some time and have poured time and attention into helping him remedy the situation.
“Your starting quarterback is not somebody you are going to ignore if they have academic issues,” Choate said. “This is not something that creeped up overnight. This is by no stretch of the imagination are we negligent here in not doing everything we can to help this young man achieve his success academically.”
The Inglewood, California native came to Montana State as a raw 17-year-old with MSU as his lone Division I suitor. Because of the struggles of FBS transfer Tyler Bruggman combined with Murray’s electric athleticism, the teenager was thrust into an elevated role his first season in Bozeman in 2016. By the sixth game of the season, he was the full-time quarterback and made his first start before turning 18.
By the end of his freshman season, Murray had led MSU to back-to-back Big Sky Conference victories, including rushing for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-17 upset win over the rival Montana Grizzlies in Missoula. Murray finished his first season with 860 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, earning Big Sky Freshman of the Year honors for the 4-7 Bobcats.
Last spring, Bruggman battled with Murray for the starting job before Murray edged out the former Washington State and Louisville passer with a strong arm but accuracy and confidence issues. Bruggman graduated in May of 2017 and left the program. In the fall, Murray assumed the full-time starting job and showed flashes of his improvement early, throwing for more than 300 yards and rushing for more than 100 in MSU’s 31-27 loss to No. 3 South Dakota State in their home opener. But the inconsistencies of his freshman season — he completed 48 percent of his passes — plagued the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder throughout 2017 as well.
Murray looked unstoppable in MSU’s 49-21 dismantling of defending Big Sky champion North Dakota, throwing for 174 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 132 yards and another score as the Bobcats opened league play 1-0 in Grand Forks. But the sophomore completed just eight passes for 124 yards in a 25-17 loss to Weber State while rushing for 123 on a rainy Bozeman Saturday; completed two passes for nine yards but rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-22 win over Portland State hampered by wind; and completed 10 passes for 135 yards while rushing for 88 yards and a touchdown in a 31-19 loss at Eastern Washington, all in consecutive weeks.
He was more consistent in a 27-24 win at Northern Colorado, completing 20-of-35 passes for 225 yards and overcoming two interceptions and rushing for 150 yards and a score to lead MSU on a two-minute drive that culminated in Gabe Peppenger’s game-winning field goal in Greeley. He threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown in a 28-14 home win over Idaho State the following week.
In a 16-14 loss to eventual national quarterfinalist Kennesaw State, Murray again regressed, completing just five passes and throwing a pick while rushing for 92 yards and a TD. The following week, he threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 85 yards and two more scores but could not convert the game-winning two-point conversion attempt in a 37-36 loss at Northern Arizona that sealed MSU’s spot outside the FCS post season.
“The best players I’ve been around, the mark of a great player in my mind is their level of consistency,” Choate said. “Most of the kids who have had tremendous consistency on the field are very consistent off the field as well in terms of their academic life, their social life and that’s where I think his growth needs to occur. Take care of business in these other areas, football will take care of itself. You are gifted there. But just think how much better a football player you will be if you have your life compartmentalized and in order outside of football. I think even Chris would be the first to admit there were stressors that he created for himself off the field through some academic issues that definitely effected his psyche and his ability to prepare on the football side of things. That’s what you really need out of that quarterback position is somebody who can be consistent throughout the course of a season.”
In Montana State’s season finale, the Bobcats posted their first win over the Griz in Bozeman since 2005 behind 98 passing yards and 99 rushing yards and a touchdown on the way to a 31-23 victory to cap a 5-6 season. Murray completed 51.5 percent of his passes for 1,597 yards and 15 touchdowns against nine interceptions. He rushed for 1,124 yards, the top total in the Big Sky Conference, and scored 10 rushing touchdowns for the top rushing attack in the league.
Now Murray will use the redshirt season he likely should’ve had if not for Bruggman’s struggles in his half a season as the starter. Choate said Murray will not practice or travel with the team, instead solely focusing “on this academic piece to get it right. That’s the No. 1 job he has is to work on himself, whether that’s to develop spiritually, emotionally, own this, step forward, grow as a man and No. 2, football is fleeting but what is going to sustain you in life is the ability to work through tough situations, overcome adversity and give yourself something to fall back on with a degree from a great university like Montana State.”
“You never want something like to come up but Chris got throw into the fire as a true freshman about midway through the year and I think made strides and improved last year but I think you could even see then, if he would’ve had that full year to develop, how much better could he have been his sophomore season?” Choate asked.
“You talk about big picture, here’s the downside: we are losing one of the more dynamic players on our team and in the league with the ‘Wow’ factor he brings. Like I’ve told people, Chris has been occasionally acceptable but the reality is that he hasn’t been consistently good enough for us to be a winning team. That’s what we are striving for is to find that consistency. I think we are going to have a true competition for the first time since I’ve been here.”
In the off-season, Choate moved former MSU All-American quarterback DeNarius McGhee from QB coach to running backs coach. He hired veteran offensive coordinator and quarterback mentor Bob Cole as his passing game coordinator while moving McGhee to running backs coach to replace Michael Pitre, who left for Oregon State.
During spring practices, junior Brady McChesney abruptly retired due to injury. Redshirt freshman walk-on Kamden Brown did not return to the roster. Travis Jonsen, a former four-star recruit from Anaheim who graduated early from Servite High to compete for the starting job at Oregon before breaking his foot, sat out of MSU’s spring drills because of a similar injury. Murray and redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig took all the reps under center with Murray the clear front-runner to be Montana State’s starter for the third season in a row.
Choate indicated that quarterback competition commences with the opening of team practices on August 3. Choate said having a starter named by the Bobcats’ opener Thursday night August 30 against Western Illinois at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman “would be the ideal situation for us” but will not put a steadfast deadline on the decision.
The Bobcats will watch a quarterback battle between Jonsen, a 6-foot-4 dual threat who most recently played at Riverside Community College, Rovig, a 6-foot-5 Boise native who’s most recent game reps came against Idaho 5A high school competition, Casey Bauman, a 6-foot-5 athlete with a rocket arm from Nooksack Valley, Washington and Ruben Beltran, an incoming dual threat true freshman who led Centennial (Peoria) High to the Arizona 5A state championship last fall. Montana State.
Choate also said that the staff has made the decision to play Troy Andersen, the 2017 Big Sky Freshman of the Year, full time on offense. The Dillon product split time between running back and outside linebacker during a memorable rookie season last fall. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder spent all spring playing outside linebacker. He has taken reps at quarterback during MSU’s player-run practices and could be in the mix at quarterback, Choate said. He will play running back if he is not MSU’s starter under center.
“The one wild card here is probably Travis Jonsen,” Choate said. “He has just now gotten fully cleared. The injury took some time. He’s got a plate in that foot. He could do some jogging, weight transfer but this morning was the first time he could do full-on team stuff. He’s the wild card in this.
“If you read between the lines, we took a quarterback (Bauman), then we added another arm with Ruben Beltran. We’ve got Tucker Rovig who took a ton of reps in the spring. We’ve got other guys who we are going to take a look at. I think we are going to have a really healthy quarterback competition. When I spoke with the team — this wasn’t a surprise to them. We addressed this in June and Chris spoke to the team directly. This may be news to a lot of people outside the program but inside the walls of this building, our guys are focused and prepared and will be ready to go regardless of how this shoot down for Chris. I certainly feel bad for him but bottom line is he has to own this and we have to move forward.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved