BILLINGS — Quarterback Chris Murray and the Montana State football program have officially parted ways.
MSU’s sports information office confirmed Friday morning that Murray will not return to the Bobcats after missing the 2018 season due to academic suspension. An athletic department spokesman said Murray was unable to restore his eligibility during the 2018-19 academic year and has left the team.
Murray, who was allowed to participate on weekends during spring drills while still enrolled at MSU, took the QB reins in Bozeman as a 17-year-old true freshman. He made 16 combined starts during the 2016 and 2017 seasons and accounted for 4,359 yards of offense.
Though his passing was inconsistent, Murray established himself as a dual-threat quarterback and was responsible for 43 touchdowns in two years. He rushed for 1,124 yards in 2017, becoming the first Bobcat quarterback to eclipse 1,000 yards (Troy Andersen surpassed him last season, rushing for 1,412 yards).
Murray, the 2016 Big Sky Conference freshman of the year, went 7-9 as the starter. He beat archrival Montana twice.
With Murray gone and Andersen expected to begin fall camp playing linebacker, the Bobcats’ quarterback job is again open. The competition for fall camp right now appears to be between sophomores Tucker Rovig and Casey Bauman, and redshirt freshman Ruben Beltran.
In addition to Murray’s departure, MSU’s sports information office said Tyrel Burgess (academics) is no longer with the team. Cornerback Jalen Cole, meanwhile, is not yet medically cleared to play this season.
During a phone interview with 406mtsports.com on Thursday, Bobcats coach Jeff Choate indicated that the team is still in wait-and-see mode with regard to the status of receiver Jabarri Johnson.
Johnson, who has one year of eligibility remaining, missed all of last season with a knee injury. Choate said earlier in the spring that the team had hoped to have an answer on Johnson’s availability by the first part of June.
“What our deal was all along was for him to get back here after the month of May and go through a couple weeks of training and see how (his knee) responds,” Choate said. “He’s taking one summer class to complete his degree. That’s the most important thing, to get that checked off.
“Beyond that, another year of football would be a bonus given the severity of the injury that he had. We’re kind of trying to do our due diligence and give him the appropriate amount of time, but also make sure that he understands that at some point we have to do what’s best for our roster as a whole.”
In his only season at MSU (to date), Johnson, a former wideout at Sacramento State, had 448 receiving yards and four touchdown catches in 2017.
Choate said he expects the first practice of fall camp to be held Friday, Aug. 2.
Eye on the roster
With respect to finding potential immediate help, Choate said he doesn’t expect the roster to evolve much more than it already has.
Dylan Porter, a 300-pound offensive lineman who was at Nevada last season, announced on Twitter late Wednesday that he has committed to the Bobcats as a transfer.
MSU recently added 300-pound defensive lineman Jason Scrempos, a University of Washington dropdown, who joins fellow ex-Husky DLs Bryce Sterk and Amandré Williams in Bozeman.
College of the Siskiyous d-lineman Tyson Regimbal, a 250-pounder, also joined the team last month. He has three years to play two.
“We’ve addressed both sides of the line of scrimmage here late in the cycle,” Choate said. “Other than that, we’ll roll with who got us here.”
With summer workouts and player-run practices under way, Choate said he’s satisfied with the way his team has progressed under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Alex Willcox.
“We really have been a second-half team, and I think that speaks to the commitment our players have made and the job that our strength and conditioning staff has done getting these guys ready to go,” Choate said. “I don’t anticipate us taking a step back.”
The one concern Choate has revolves around MSU’s growth at the skill positions after a spring practice session that was stunted due to poor outdoor field conditions.
For a team that figures to use its fourth Week 1 starting quarterback in as many seasons, that aspect can’t be overstated.
“What we’ve really got to do is make up for lost time,” Choate said. “We only got about eight real practices in during spring ball and it was really difficult for receivers and quarterbacks to develop timing and consistency.
“I think that’s got to be a huge emphasis — that skill development and that timing between our skill players. And the camaraderie, the chemistry, is a huge piece of the summer, too.”
Earlier this week the Bobcats were ranked in the top 15 in two preseason FCS polls — No. 8 by Athlon and No. 14 by HERO Sports.
Choate, who last year guided MSU to an 8-5 record and its first playoff victory since 2012, doesn't put much stock in outside prognostications. His mindset won’t change now.
“The national polls at the FCS level are, ‘Who made the playoffs last year, let’s put them somewhere in here.’ I just don’t think that it really means a lot,” Choate said. “When you look closer to home, here’s what people in the Big Sky think of us: They picked us eighth last year and we’ve had exactly one first-team all-conference player in each of my three years here. So I still have a chip on my shoulder.
“You look over the hill at Montana, they have multiple all-conference guys every year. National player of the year candidates, et cetera. We’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ve got a lot to prove.
“We’re just down here in Bozeman keeping our head to the grindstone, so we’ll see. I think we’ve built and built, and I think people know that we’re going to be a tough outfit. But as far as what that means on the national scale, it doesn’t mean a damn thing to me. It really doesn’t.”