BOZEMAN — Last season served as a breakthrough for coach Jeff Choate and Montana State. After consecutive losing seasons, the Bobcats won eight games, qualified for the FCS postseason and claimed their first playoff victory in six long years.
What’s in store in Choate’s fourth season at the helm? With steady growth comes higher expectations, both internally and externally.
“I think our players expect to compete for a championship, and certainly our fan base,” said Choate, who is 17-18 overall as MSU’s coach. “For me, I expect us to improve.”
The Bobcats begin that process as they open fall camp in preparation for the 2019 season. Players reported Thursday, and the first practice is scheduled for 3:45 p.m. Friday at the Dyche Fields on MSU’s campus.
It seems as if the questions that have hovered over the program of late still persist. Who will be the quarterback? Can the offense find more balance? What role will jack-of-all-trades Troy Andersen have? Can the defense be not just good, but elite?
There’s also a new defensive coordinator, as Kane Ioane returns after a two-year stint as a quality-control analyst at Washington.
The Bobcats are scheduled to conduct 18 practices before Week 1 preparations begin Aug. 23. MSU, picked to finish in the top five of the Big Sky by both the media and coaches, opens its season Aug. 31 at FBS Texas Tech.
Here’s a look at some important storylines as the Bobcats begin the August grind:
Who’s the QB?
Ostensibly, the starting quarterback job will come down to sophomore Tucker Rovig and redshirt freshmen Casey Bauman and Ruben Beltran, though Choate also mentions senior Travis Jonsen, who converted to wide receiver last season, as being another potential option.
Andersen, last year’s starter, is not expected to begin camp competing for the QB job, though he’ll still have a role on offense, which will undoubtedly utilize a plethora of sets and formations to best employ their weapons.
MSU’s quarterbacks have struggled to pass with consistency in the Choate era — be it Tyler Bruggman or Chris Murray or Andersen or whoever. But Choate said leadership is the intangible he wants to see.
“Whether it’s Casey or Tucker or Ruben Beltran or Travis Jonsen, whoever it is has got to be that guy,” Choate said.
“Regardless of what the completion percentage is in fall camp, the thing I’m looking for is who the guys in the huddle believe in. Who’s going to emerge as the guy that says, ‘This is my team, this is my group of guys, let’s go win’?”
Defining Andersen’s role
How will Andersen’s reps shake out as camp progresses? As we’ve heard since the end of last season, Andersen is expected to play a prominent role at outside linebacker this year, but Choate is not willing to hand him over to the defense completely.
As a freshman running back in 2017, Andersen rushed for 515 yards and five touchdowns, and was named the Big Sky Conference’s freshman of the year. Last season Andersen broke a league record with 1,412 rushing yards from the quarterback position and accounted for 23 TDs.
Choate knows that Andersen can still have a huge impact on offense, even with fewer touches than he's accumulated in the past. That seems to be the thinking entering camp.
“I don’t know what the pitch count is for him,” Choate admitted, “but I do know this — I’ve told (Ioane) that there’s going to be times when he’s not going to have Troy on defense for this series, or a couple of series, because we’re going to be utilizing him more on offense or we’re going to roll with him on offense or whatever the case may be.”
About 3rd down
One of Choate’s pre-camp edicts has been that the Bobcats’ defense needs to get off the field more consistently on third down. So a steady amount of situational reps can be expected in this crucial facet of the game.
Opposing offenses converted 41.8 percent of their third-down plays last season (82 of 196), placing the Bobcats 10th in the 13-team Big Sky.
Ioane takes over the coordinating reins from Ty Gregorak, who led the defense the past three seasons, and this will be one of his primary concerns.
“Jahque Alleyne was one of the top interceptors in the league and Bryce Sterk was one of the best guys at hitting the quarterback in the league, and yet we’re not capable of getting off the field on third down,” Choate noted. “For us to take that next step I think that third-down thing is going to be so critical.”
Alleyne, a safety, and Sterk, a pass-rush specialist, both return as seniors.
Part of the Bobcats’ third-down problem can reasonably be traced to the performance of their linebackers. Injuries and inexperience hindered this group at times — though it will surely miss graduated senior Grant Collins, one of the team’s hardest workers and best leaders.
With Andersen expected to fortify the entire position group, the linebackers could stand to elevate their play. There seems to be some quality depth, and it should make for some healthy competition in the next three weeks.
A healthy Chad Kanow would bolster this unit on the weak side, and position-mate Michael Jobman is coming off a 73-tackle season as a sophomore. Transfer Blake Flovin is also a name to remember.
Another aspect to watch is the continued development of athletic-yet-raw junior Daniel Hardy on the strong side. Meanwhile, the team might choose to be careful in camp with senior Josh Hill — who missed all but one game last year after back surgery — to ensure his availability for the regular season.
And stay tuned: True freshman Jaharie Martin (6-1, 230) of Lakeland, Florida, comes into camp with as much hype as any newcomer.