BOZEMAN — Jeff Choate described Jabarri Johnson’s potential season-ending injury as “a dark cloud” over the Montana State football team leading up to the first scrimmage of spring football.
After a week to emerge from the shadows, a Bobcat offense paced by emerging star Willie Patterson shined during a morning scrimmage on Good Friday as Montana State closes in on the completion of its three spring session under Choate.
The morning started with below-freezing temperatures and a biting wind before the sunshine broke through, just like Patterson has emerged over the last four weeks.
The redshirt freshman from Tacoma, Washington did not wait for temperatures to rise, instead ripping off an 11-yard gain on a sweep play, then catching a 14-yard touchdown pass from junior Chris Murray to cap a 65-yard touchdown on MSU’s first offensive possession of the 55-play competition.
The former high school quarterback has show a diverse abilty to dice defenses, using his keen field vision to set up blocks when he gets the ball on jet and fly sweep motions. He has also shown good route running skill and sticky hands in the passing game. He finished Saturday with 31 rushing on three carries and caught a scrimmage-high four passes for 32 yards and another touchdown.
“Willie’s a good football player,” Choate said. “He was a highly-productive guy out of Franklin Pierce High School, played basically every position on the field and scored a whole bunch of touchdowns. He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands, and he’s another guy who took the next step in terms of his preparation in the weight room, and adding some strength and some confidence from knowing the offense has put him in position to have an impact on our offense.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-4 senior who is MSU’s returning leader in catches, yards and touchdowns, suffered what is likely a season-ending knee injury on a one-on-one passing drill a little more than a week ago. The injury caused for a shuffling of MSU’s largely inexperienced receiving corps.
Junior Kevin Kassis, the starter in the slot the last two seasons, has moved to the outside where he will compete for reps with true sophomore Lance McCutcheon, redshirt freshmen Peyton Hanser, James Campbell, and Kapili Livingston-Lopez. Senior John D’Agostino is still making his way back from knee surgery that ended last season but should be in the mix at X receiver as well.
“I knew my chance was going to come this spring and I knew I needed to separate myself so I really worked hard through the off-season and through the six-week training period before the season and I knew once it was spring ball, it was time to go,” Patterson said.
Kassis’ move from the inside to the outside and junior Karl Tucker II’s move to running back means elevated opportunities for Patterson and fellow redshirt freshman Coy Steel. Both have had standout springs.
“I think I’m starting to separate myself from being a redshirt to now to being someone who can contribute to the team,” Patterson said. “I’m not glad that I redshirted but I’m definitely seeing the benefits of it now. Now you can see the off-season training is coming into effect and you can see out there me making plays.
“I feel like I could be a deadly returner and also play in the slot. I feel like me playing quarterback in high school, I feel that I have a better feel for the offense than most players who have been playing receiver their whole lives. I can read defenses a little better.”
The 5-foot-9, 176-pound former two-star recruit wears No. 11 for Montana State, the same number he wore as a quarterback who earned Washington 2A South Puget Sound League Offensive Player of the Year honors. As a senior at Franklin Pierce, he threw for 2,723 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushed for 1,659 yards and 21 more touchdowns before Franklin Pierce lost in the second round of the Washington 2A state playoffs. He threw for 3,115 yards and 35 touchdowns while rushing for 720 more during his junior season.
He earned first-team All-State honors as a multi-purpose player thanks to a 92-yard kick return for a score, an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown, four interceptions and an interception return for a score. He was voted the Tacoma Athlete of the Year as a junior.
“I feel like being behind the linemen (in high school) I already know how to read blocks,” he said. “Getting that ball and having space to run is heaven to me,” Patterson said. “The game was fast when I first got here, but now I can think more. A lot of film sessions (and practice) is slowing the game down, for sure.”
Patterson’s abilities in the horizontal run game gives an added element to MSU’s triple option run game, helping the offense press the edges in an effort to loosen things up for the electric Murray. The Bobcats have also seen the emergence of Tucker and the added physical presence of Indiana transfer Tyler Natee, a 6-foot, 270-pound battering ram.
On Friday, Tucker rushed six times for 31 yards while Natee totaled 35 yards on eight carries, including 12 yards on the opening touchdown drive. Murray added 13 yards on three carries.
“When you have guys like Tyler and Karl,” Kassis said with a laugh, “I wouldn’t want to tackle them. Obviously the O-line getting a good push up there, sometimes I can’t tell because I’m on the outside, but when you run the ball it starts opening things up. Getting a good push up front is a good start.”
The production in the run game and the diversity added by Patterson and Steel helped the quarterbacks, particularly Murray, look efficient despite the wind. Around the same time Johnson suffered his injury, junior quarterback Brady McChesney elected to retire, leaving just Murray and redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig to take snaps this spring.
Murray finished Friday’s session 6-of-11 for 46 yards and the touchdown to Patterson. Less than a week after taking eight touch sacks and struggling to find any rhythm, Rovig looked better, completing 5-of-12 passes for 48 yards, including finding Hanser three times for 34 yards.
“The one thing I was pleased with was that Chris in particular didn’t force the ball,” Choate said, adding that Murray’s physical improvements have transferred to the field. “Chris is stronger, and I think that’s noticeable. He is pushing the ball more, he’s got more velocity on his throws, and I really was pleased with his poise and the way we’ve run the offense.
And I thought Tucker (Rovig, who was 5-for-12 passing) was a little up and down, but he had some really good moments today. He was certainly much improved over the first scrimmage.”
The Bobcat offense scored on three of the day’s six play-it drives. Tristan Bailey (35 yards) and Jacob Byrne (33 yards) each converted field goals. In the team’s brief red zone work, Natee scored from one yard out and Bailey kicked a 23-yard field goal.
Montana State’s last full week of spring drills begins next Tuesday, when the Cats practice in advance of Saturday’s Sonny Holland Scrimmage. MSU will practice once the following week leading up to the Triangle Classic in Great Falls. , which will feature drills but not an official scrimmage
“I don’t know if we will do this many plays next Saturday,” Choate said. “This was kind of let’s get the work done we need to get done, let’s continue to polish things next week, get 40 plays and good fan engagement, make it more of an event than a scrimmage.
“We are only going to do 13 practices instead of 15. One less opportunity for something negative to happen. We can’t focus on that. We have to focus on the remaining opportunities to get better.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.
MONTANA STATE SCRIMMAGE STATS
RUSHING: Tyler Natee 8-35-1, Karl Tucker II 6-31-0, Tucker Rovig 4-17-0, Chris Murray 3-13-0, Willie Patterson 3-31-0, Coy Steel 1-1-0.
PASSING: Chris Murray 6-11-0, 46, 1 TD; Tucker Rovig 5-12-0, 48, 0.
RECEIVING: Willie Patterson 4-32-1, Peyton Hanser 3-34-0, Tyler Natee 1-11-0, Lance McCutcheon 1-5-0, Karl Tucker II 2-15-0.
DEFENSIVE SPECIAL STATS: Sacks – Derek Marks; Other Tackles-for-Loss – Brian Campbell; Pass Breakups – Troy Andersen (2), Ty Okada, Tucker Yates, Bryce Sterk
FIELD GOALS: Tristan Bailey 2-2 (35 made, 23 made), Jacob Byrne 1-1 (23 made).
Note: Skyline Sports also recorded sacks for Troy Andersen, Bryce Sterk, Elu Leota & Kyle Finch.