BOZEMAN — Montana State is setting higher goals for 2018, and the path toward a winning season and, in accordance with those aspirations, a shot at a Big Sky Conference title begins at quarterback.
You might think the Bobcats are just fine: Incumbent starter Chris Murray, while making incremental progress the past two seasons, has accounted for more than 4,300 yards of offense and 43 touchdowns so far his career. He’s also 2-0 against archrival Montana.
But MSU coach Jeff Choate knows that for his team to take the next step it must up the ante. Wednesday’s signing of Riverside City College and former Oregon quarterback Travis Jonsen, Choate said, raises the stakes among MSU’s signal-callers.
“That’s what the objective was,” Choate said during a press conference announcing 16 new additions. “We need to create competition and add value at that quarterback position.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re going to be able to put a team out there that is going to be good enough to compete for a championship — if, and only if, we have championship-level quarterback play. And so Travis is going to be a young man that I think can help elevate that room.”
Jonsen’s matriculation to Montana State is as welcome as it is ironic.
A 6-foot-4, 215-pound dual-threat product of Servite High School in Southern California’s touted Trinity League, Jonsen enrolled early at Oregon as a four-star recruit in the spring of 2015 but was inactive that season due to a toe injury.
The following year, Jonsen was beat out for the Ducks’ starting spot by Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop. When Prukop struggled, the job went to Justin Herbert (the brother of ex-Bobcat receiver Mitch Herbert).
It was then that Jonsen decided on a different career path, and he played last season at Riverside City College in California. Now he’s at MSU, where he will try to raise the level of quarterback play to Prukop-type heights — the last time the Bobcats were a bona fide conference title contender.
(In a separate twist, Jonsen signed with MSU due in part to his relationship with recruiting coordinator Michael Pitre, who was on the Servite coaching staff when Jonsen was in high school.)
Choate, looking ahead to his third season at the helm, explained Montana State’s two-year quarterbacking saga like this:
“When we got here, Dakota was the incumbent starter. Dakota made a choice to move to another university,” Choate said. “We had a young man (Tyler Bruggman) that we brought in that got beat out, and so he moves on. And then we had a guy that was a freshman in that previous class (Jordan Hoy) that didn’t really fit what we were going to do, he moves on.
“Bang, bang, bang, we’ve got a little problem there, right? And that’s not a good place to have a problem. So really, Chris has become the starter here almost by default, and what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to continue to increase the competition in that room.”
Thus, Jonsen hasn’t been anointed the starter. And it also shouldn’t be suggested that the job isn’t Murray’s to lose. Remember: Murray was just 17 when he took over midway through his true freshman season, and his second year at the helm was decidedly better than his first.
To make things more interesting, MSU also has Tucker Rovig in the fold, a decorated quarterback from the Boise, Idaho, area who redshirted in 2017 and could make a genuine push during the spring and summer.
The Bobcats also signed Everson, Washington, product Casey Bauman on Wednesday, a tremendous athlete (Choate’s words) with a tantalizing upside, according to the coach. Choate indicated, though, that the initial plan will be for Bauman to redshirt.
Regardless of how it shakes out — the competition will be closely watched until the season opener versus Western Illinois — Choate said Jonsen’s arrival to Montana State gives him a chance to reignite his career.
“He’s an accomplished player and is a guy that I think brings immediate credibility to that room when he steps in there with some of the things that he achieved as a high school player, as well,” Choate said.
“I think he sees this as an opportunity to be in a position where his skill set is valued. (He’s) very similar in terms of some of his athletic ability to what Chris has. We see it as an opportunity for a young man like Chris to be challenged and pushed, and that’s what we need to be our best in this program.
“If we get championship-level quarterback play, look out. And that’s what we’re hoping Travis can come in and (do) — compete with guys that are in the program, like Tucker Rovig and Chris Murray, and bring some maturity and some experience with him.”