SPOKANE, Wash. — Sunday night at the Big Sky Kickoff, Montana State football coach Jeff Choate shared a lighthearted moment with the best tight end in the league, Portland State’s Charlie Taumopeau.
It had to do with the Bobcats’ mercurial quarterback situation, which has been a constant topic of discussion since Choate took over as coach before the 2016 season.
“I was sitting with Charlie and he’s like, ‘Coach, you’ve got to get me over there to play some quarterback,’” Choate regaled, noting the continuing nature of MSU's QB drama. “I said, ‘We play everybody at quarterback at Montana State.’”
The two were joking, of course, but based on that exchange it seems everyone in the Big Sky Conference is intrigued by what road the Bobcats might take next. Choate knows that better than anyone.
With the first practice of fall camp in Bozeman scheduled to take place Aug. 2, Montana State is again facing questions under center. Chris Murray, who went 7-9 in 16 combined starts between 2016 and 2017, is no longer with the team, and last year’s starter, Troy Andersen, will presumably play the majority of his snaps at linebacker.
That means it’s (most likely) up to sophomore Tucker Rovig and freshmen Casey Bauman and Ruben Beltran to hash it out before the season opener Aug. 31 at Texas Tech. Choate even indicated that QB-turned-receiver Travis Jonsen might be back in the mix.
In any event, MSU is poised to use its fourth different Week 1 starter in as many seasons.
“That’s probably the biggest question that people are going to have,” Choate acknowledged. “We’ve been kind of an interesting outfit. It’s kind of been whatever we’ve got to do to win a game, we’ll do.”
But it hasn’t just been a revolving door between the quarterbacks themselves. In Choate’s tenure, the Bobcats have also used four different quarterbacks coaches and four different play-callers.
Courtney Messingham served in both roles in 2016 before leaving for North Dakota State (he’s now the offensive coordinator at Kansas State), and the following year the offensive coordinator was Brian Armstrong while DeNarius McGhee served as quarterbacks coach.
Last year Armstrong again held the title of offensive coordinator while Bob Cole mentored the QBs — and both had a hand in play-calling — until Cole was let go at midseason. That's when Armstrong was moved back to his original position group at offensive line and Matt Miller was elevated from his previous job as wide receivers coach to coordinate the offense and handle the quarterbacks.
With Miller reprising that role in 2019 and seemingly beyond, Choate hopes the wheel has finally stopped spinning. But it’s been an unconventional process.
“I accept a lot of responsibility for that,” Choate said. “The first time around, Courtney clearly couldn’t say no to the (NDSU) opportunity. And it paid off for him — he’s now a Power 5 coordinator.
“Putting Brian in that situation, once we shifted gears, my concern was that he wasn’t in the quarterback room. Brian is, I think, one of the best run-game, in-game adjustment guys in this league if not the country at our level, and our numbers bear that out. But there was a little bit of a disconnect with the quarterback situation with what was going on with the play-calling.”
Choate then hired Cole, a respected pass-game guru with a long history of success as a coordinator and quarterbacks coach, to have play-calling input. But the experiment backfired.
“I wanted the guy in the quarterback room to at least have a strong hand in calling the plays, and I know Brian and Bob Cole had had a previous relationship (at Utah State). We tried to make that work … and it didn’t work. It was almost like it was a two-headed monster.
“Once we made the change to put Matt in there — and this wasn’t really Bob’s fault — I needed to give Matt all the chips. I couldn’t divide them up. I already tried that. Matt’s a natural leader, a very confident young man, very humble and very smart. And so I think he fit the bill for us and has done a nice job of kind of bringing some stability to that situation.”
Whether Miller is ultimately the panacea remains to be seen. But in his half-season stint calling plays last year the Bobcats went 4-2 and averaged 35 points in those victories.
As long as Choate is in charge, MSU’s offensive DNA will always consist of running first and running often. But the value of achieving some balance isn’t lost on the head coach.
“I do think solidifying that position could really go a long ways toward allowing us to expand the package and really hone in on who we are,” Choate said.
“Who we are generally is going to be handing the ball to somebody that’s going to make something happen, but being more explosive out of play-action and being more efficient in the passing game makes us more difficult to defend, which should equate to a higher output on offense.”
Now all the Bobcats need to do is find their trigger man.