BOZEMAN — It’s been well documented that Montana State’s passing game was less than explosive in Jeff Choate’s first two seasons as coach.
Sure, a lot of that had to do with the inconsistency of the previous starting quarterback, Chris Murray, who is out this year due to academic ineligibility. But the Bobcats’ wide receiver corps has taken those struggles to heart, too.
All eyes are on MSU’s quarterback competition during fall camp this year, though the receivers have just as much motivation to ignite the passing game as anyone else.
After a fall-camp practice last week, Choate used a particular word to describe the general on-field makeup of wide receivers, whether they’re his or those in other programs.
“Diva,” Choate said with a laugh.
“What is their motivation? They want the ball. They want the opportunity to shine. Whether it’s running on a reverse or catching a touchdown pass or even on a dig route where they get the first down and they can stand up and point, God bless ‘em, that’s what they love doing.
“Receivers, for whatever reason, are some of the most competitive guys that you usually have on your roster. They want the rock, they want to make the play that makes the game.”
The latter is true for the Bobcats’ crop, but it’s not too easy to identify any "divas" simply because it is so unproven. MSU’s top two receivers from last season, Mitch Herbert and Jabarri Johnson, aren’t with the team. Herbert graduated and Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury during the spring.
Thus, junior captain Kevin Kassis is the most seasoned wideout. Kassis has caught 30 passes and two touchdowns combined in his first two years.
Bozeman product Johnny D’Agostino returns after sitting out last season with a knee injury. D’Agostino, now a senior, caught 19 passes and two TDs in six games in 2016.
After that it’s a whole lot of wait-and-see. MSU seems high on a pair of newcomers: Junior Davine Tullis (6-1, 195) is a transfer from Hawaii, and freshman Maleek Barkley (5-10, 175) redshirted last year at Arkansas.
Sophomore Lance McCutcheon (6-2, 195) is another Bozeman product who has shown flashes. He had three receptions last season, one of which went for a 64-yard touchdown. Redshirt freshman Willie Patterson (5-9, 165) has shown speed and elusiveness when he gets the ball in space.
Another redshirt freshman, James Campbell (6-1, 165) is an option. So is redshirt freshman Coy Steel (5-8, 170), who has made a clear impression over the course of the past week.
True freshmen Mekhi Metcalf (6-4, 175) and Koby Duru (6-2, 190) are a pair of true freshmen that Choate has singled out during camp.
Steel said he and the unheralded crop of young receivers are eager to make their mark.
“Kevin and Johnny are really the only guys that have played at all,” Steel said. “Those two have a big leadership role, and it’s just a matter of getting the young guys like us ready to play.
“I think we have a lot of potential and we’re pretty close to getting there. If we can get to where we need to be we’ll be fine.”
What about the tight ends?
In the past two seasons, Montana State’s tight ends have combined for 28 receptions. They had just 11 last year. Clearly, the tight ends have had a much bigger role as blockers while the Bobcats rolled up some of the top rushing totals in the Big Sky Conference.
But Wilson Brott, a senior from Billings West High School, said he and fellow tight ends Connor Sullivan and Curtis Amos figure to be more involved through the air.
“There will be times when we’re involved in pass protection, and we’re involved in the run game quite a bit,” said Brott, whose one career catch went for a touchdown last year at North Dakota. “For myself, I’m definitely more involved in blocking, and Curtis and Sully are more involved in the route-running, but we definitely have more of a run-game emphasis.
“But right when (quarterbacks coach Bob) Cole came in I think you could tell right away that we’d have more of a (receiving) role. The quarterbacks were looking at us quite a bit more, it seemed like.”
Choate has maintained that he and the coaching staff won’t have any greater clarity regarding the quarterback competition until the team conducts its first scrimmage, which is Saturday.
During interviews on Thursday, the offensive pass-catchers didn’t divulge which of the QBs — the race is ostensibly between Troy Andersen, Travis Jonsen, Tucker Rovig and Casey Bauman — has the upper hand.
“They all have things that they do well,” Steel said. “They all throw the ball well. Honestly, when you’re playing you don’t really notice who’s in and who’s not in. We’re just out there trying to do our jobs.”
Added Brott: “I think all of them have been doing a really good job. Some of them bring different skills to the table than others. I think right now it’s been pretty close.
“At least for me, it’s kind of hard to judge who’s been the best one so far. That’s more of a coaches’ decision. I’m confident in all of the quarterbacks. I think we can win with whichever one (wins) the job.”
Friday’s practice is expected to be more of a light walkthrough in advance of scrimmage No. 1, which begins Saturday at 2 p.m. at Bobcat Stadium and is closed to the media.