BILLINGS — A true quarterback competition has so far eluded Montana State during Jeff Choate’s coaching tenure in Bozeman. But that will change this year — especially with Wednesday’s announcement that incumbent starter Chris Murray must redshirt and sit out the 2018 season due to academic problems.
“This is going to be a situation where we’re going to have three or four guys that are going to be getting after it and competing, and the best man is going to win,” Choate said during a conference call Wednesday. “The guy that’s most consistent — not just the best option that we have — but I think the best guy for our team and our system will end up being our quarterback.”
Three or four players is plenty, but it could be as many as five if you include multi-talented Dillon product Troy Andersen, who Choate said will potentially be in the mix for the job due to his unique and versatile skill set.
The other candidates are expected to be junior Travis Jonsen, redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig and incoming true freshmen Casey Bauman and Ruben Beltran. There isn’t a Division I snap among them.
“We’re going to have to use a lot of team reps” in fall camp, Choate said. “We’re going to have to throw some live bullets at these guys. We’re not going to find out if they’re game ready by doing 7 on 7 or plays on air.
“We’re going to have to put these guys in a lot of live situations. The biggest difference is we’re going to have to script in more live reps for these guys to be able to get a body of work and decide who the right guy is for us.”
Choate said he hopes the team is settled on a quarterback before the end of fall camp, which opens Aug. 3. MSU begins its season at home on Aug. 30 against Western Illinois.
Who will assume the starting role from Murray? Following is a closer look at the candidates:
Jonsen (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) was once a four-star high school recruit from the Los Angeles area. He was among the QB crop at Oregon before moving on to Riverside City College in California for the 2017 season.
He came to MSU in December with a new lease on his career but broke his foot when he slipped on icy stairs and didn’t participate in spring practice. Quarterbacks coach Bob Cole has described Jonsen as the x-factor of the group.
“Athletically he’s as good as it gets,” Cole said earlier this summer. “He’s a sharp kid. He’s got a little bit of swagger to him, so that’s never a bad thing. We’ve just got to get him out on the field and around the players and see how he operates when the bullets are flying.”
Rovig (6-5, 205) redshirted last season. He is the only one of the group that the coaching staff has been able to evaluate up close.
He has the look of a quarterback and the reputation of a winner, having led Mountain View High School of Meridian, Idaho, to a state title in 2016. He posted a 22-3 record as a prep starter.
“You’d like to think he can push to be the starter,” Cole said. “I saw enough in the spring that tells me that he can. He has to come out and develop more from what he did in the spring to get in the mix, but he has all the tools to possibly be the guy when it rolls around against Western Illinois.”
During the introduction of MSU’s early signing class in December, Choate reacted to a video highlight of Bauman completing a pass up the seam to a teammate at Nooksack Valley High School, which is located in Everson, Washington.
“We need someone that can make that throw, right there,” Choate proclaimed.
Bauman (6-6, 225) was described by former MSU recruiting coordinator Michael Pitre as “a big-time athlete.” Bauman accounted for 42 touchdowns during his senior season at Nooksack.
One other note: Bauman shattered the backboard while dunking a basketball during a high school game last winter.
A late addition to the roster, Beltran (6-foot, 180) didn’t sign with the Bobcats until June. Beltran, a state championship-winning QB from Centennial High School in Peoria, Arizona, was overlooked by Division I schools until MSU came calling.
As a senior in 2017, Beltran quarterbacked Centennial to a 26-3 two-year record. He threw 19 touchdown passes and rushed for 230 yards and two scores as a senior.
“Ruben is a competitor with a high football IQ,” Choate said in a statement released by MSU at the time of Beltran’s signing. “He will join us with a chip on his shoulder and is eager to compete at the quarterback position right away.”
Choate said Andersen will be a full-time offensive player this season. Andersen, the 2017 Big Sky Conference freshman of the year, played both running back and linebacker last year.
But how real is his QB candidacy? He came to the Bobcats to play defense, but a lack of depth at running back facilitated his move to the backfield, where he rushed for 515 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman.
Andersen starred as a quarterback and defensive back at Beaverhead County High School and is expected to get a good look under center in August.
“When you see some things out there you’re going to go, ‘OK, yeah, this guy might end up being in that quarterback competition,’” Choate said of Andersen. “But he’s going to touch the ball a lot, whether that be at tailback, quarterback, slot receiver — we can line that guy up a lot of places. He’s super intelligent.”
“The best-case scenario for us is for maybe a Travis or a Tucker or Ruben or Casey to kind of emerge, and Troy goes back to the backfield,” Choate added. “We’re going to play our best guy that gives us the best chance to win, and when you’ve got a guy like (Andersen) that’s as good an athlete as he is, he’s got to be in the conversation.”