BOZEMAN — Montana State’s coaching staff faced a unique decision last November.
Should they throw all their chips on the table and use running back Logan Jones in the postseason? Or should they deactivate one of the Bobcats’ more explosive offensive weapons as a way to preserve his redshirt for one more year of eligibility in 2019?
At the time, Jones seemed ready and willing to do what he could to help MSU in the playoffs.
The former standout at Kalispell Glacier was a true senior in 2018, but missed the first seven games of the year recovering from torn muscles in his abdomen. He returned for the final four games and scored what ended up being the winning touchdown on a 13-yard run late in the fourth quarter of a 29-25 victory at Montana.
Jones would have been a boost to MSU’s offense. Still, head coach Jeff Choate and Co. made a calculated move to not play him beyond those four contests — the maximum number of games in which a player can see the field and still maintain his redshirt status.
Looking back, it seems a wise decision. The Bobcats didn’t need Jones in a 35-14 first-round playoff win over Incarnate Word, and he wouldn’t have been the difference the following week in a 52-10 second-round drubbing at the hands of eventual national champion North Dakota State.
“First of all, it was a great move by coach Choate. Very smart,” running backs coach DeNarius McGhee said Thursday following MSU’s 13th practice of fall camp.
“(Jones) was not disappointed at all, to tell you the truth,” McGhee added. “He was able to play in four games, and we weren’t even expecting that. But he’s a tough kid and he battled back and he was able to help us win some games down the stretch. You saw what he did against Griz.”
Jones, who Choate commended early in camp for being in the best shape of his career, is the most veteran member of the Bobcats’ running back group, having first seen the field in Rob Ash’s final year as coach in 2015.
In limited playing time last season Jones had 120 rushing yards, 62 receiving yards and accounted for three touchdowns. He also averaged 42.3 yards on three kickoff returns.
Jones (5-7, 180) can be used in different ways — in a traditional sense, on sweeps, and as a receiver out of the backfield — but he’s just one part of a diverse group of backs that is likely to carry most of the offensive burden for MSU again this season.
At the top of that list is sophomore Isaiah Ifanse, who runs much tougher than his 5-10, 195-pound frame suggests. Ifanse powered his way to 1,025 rushing yards last season, which broke the school’s freshman record.
He also scored seven touchdowns on the ground.
Ifanse said he’s aiming for a similar output, but he’s also willing to share more of the load after carrying the ball 196 times a year ago behind an offensive line that brings back four starters.
“I feel like people can expect another good year, especially with the o-line coming back,” Ifanse said.
The way the Bobcats have been experimenting in the backfield, anybody could be called on to carry the ball at any moment, whether it’s Ifanse, Jones, Lane Sumner (5-8, 190), Karl Tucker (6-1, 215), Shane Perry (5-9, 180) or true freshman Jaharie Martin (6-1, 230), who switched to running back from linebacker midway through camp.
Martin’s move was made as a way to increase depth at running back while also giving him a chance to see the field right away.
“We have 14 linebackers and six running backs, so it was pretty easy math,” Choate said. “We did not have enough bodies and enough depth there, and we didn’t have a big back.
“(Martin’s) going to be really good and can probably help us on special teams at the very least, but if we can find a role for him on offense or defense then that makes it even better. Being the No. 4 (middle) linebacker right now, there’s not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel for the kid. But if he can have a package on offense and play right now, that made sense to us.”
Receivers Travis Jonsen and Willie Patterson, as well as edge defender Amandre Williams may also take turns running the ball depending on the scenario. Jonsen scored five touchdowns out of the backfield last year.
And don’t forget, outside linebacker Troy Andersen is expected to have a role — perhaps a significant one. Andersen rushed for 515 yards as a running back as a true freshman, and piled up 1,400 more yards as the quarterback last season.
Meanwhile, true freshman DeMareus Hosey (6-0, 190) of Justin, Texas, has been one of the best-looking newcomers in camp.
“We have a nice bunch of running backs that kind of have different skill sets,” offensive coordinator Matt Miller said. “We just kind of keep those guys rolling through there. Sometimes I don’t even know who’s in the game because they all do their job really well.
“Coach McGhee is doing a nice job of getting those guys detailed up.”
One big goal for the running backs coming into camp was to improve as pass-catchers, a process that McGhee said is developing. With a more traditional quarterback in place — redshirt freshman Casey Bauman was named the starter on Monday — more opportunities could come.
In all, Montana State’s offense ran the ball 545 times last year (compared to 285 passes). How will that ratio shake out this season with a greater commitment to balance and with Bauman taking the snaps?
Time will tell. But the Bobcats remain devoted to running the football and running it often as a means to win games.