BOZEMAN — If there’s one thing Montana State football coach Jeff Choate wanted to accomplish during spring practice it was to take a good, hard look at newly acquired quarterback Travis Jonsen.
Jonsen transferred to MSU during the winter from Riverside City College in California. Before that, he had been both a four-star recruit from Servite High School in the Los Angeles area and a member of the quarterback crop at the University of Oregon.
Jonsen was perhaps the Bobcats’ most notable addition of the early signing period, but the coaches still haven’t had a chance to see him perform up close. Less than two weeks prior to the start of spring drills, Johnson suffered a sudden injury.
“Clearly, that was frustrating,” Choate said. “He had a great winter and he really fit in well with our locker room.
“He’s a very humble kid, hard-working, did everything the right way, excelled in the classroom, had great numbers in our offseason program, and then 10 days before we get started he’s walking his dog, slips, falls and breaks his foot.”
Make no mistake, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Jonsen could still be MSU’s starter despite missing the spring. At the very least, his presence both in the quarterbacks room and on the field is designed to increase competition for incumbent starter Chris Murray.
With Murray at the helm, Montana State’s passing game produced these numbers (combined) in the past two seasons: 3,312 yards, a 48.2 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.
Murray showed flashes in 2017, putting up big passing stats against the likes of South Dakota State and North Dakota. But the Bobcats actually completed fewer throws and had fewer yards last year than the season before.
While the running game has flourished, Choate will be the first to tell you that those passing numbers don’t cut the mustard. And if MSU aspires to be a Big Sky Conference contender in 2018 — they’re close, Choate believes — then it must be more adept moving the ball through the air.
Enter Bob Cole, the Bobcats’ first-year quarterbacks coach and passing guru with vast experience as a play-caller with seven different Division I programs. Cole also has familiarity with the Big Sky Conference, having served as offensive coordinator at both Portland State (1993-98) and Montana (1999) in the past.
Cole was originally brought in under the title of passing game coordinator. But the departure of running backs coach Michael Pitre to Oregon State allowed previous quarterbacks coach DeNarius McGhee to slide into Pitre’s old role and for Cole to take over the QBs in full.
Cole’s general philosophy is straightforward.
“We’re trying to make it as simple as we can on the quarterbacks, and that’s when you’re going to find the most success,” Cole said. “If we can get into some easy throws early on in games and have some completions that get them a little bit of confidence, I think you’ll see a whole different situation as far as throwing the football goes.
“Get a couple play-actions in there, too. Our running game is dominant, so if we can play off that that’s another good thing.”
It’s not like Murray has been bad, unless you consider his 4,300 total yards of offense, 43 total touchdowns and 2-0 record against archrival Montana to be substandard. But Murray’s obvious strength is his ability to run.
Cole wants to make Murray a complete dual-threat player.
“I’ve been around the block a few times and I’ve looked at a lot of different quarterbacks. He throws the ball a lot better than people think he does,” Cole said.
“He can extend plays and make something happen with his feet, but you want to get to a point where he’s not automatically looking to run the ball. Go through your reads first, then if it’s not there go make a play. That’s what we’re working on with him.”
Meanwhile, Jonsen’s upside is intriguing.
Cole said Jonsen is “the x-factor right now. What’s he going to do when he’s healthy? Athletically, he’s as good as it gets. 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.”
Cole also said redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig has the tools to make a proper push to be the starter.
Choate said the competition will be a big key when fall camp opens Aug. 3.
“Chris has been occasionally exceptional but he hasn’t been consistently where we need him to be to be a championship team,” Choate said.
“If Travis Jonsen ends up being our quarterback it’s because he beat Chris out, and that’s good for the Bobcats. If Chris ends up being our quarterback that means he held off the competition and improved, and that’s good for the Bobcats.
“I don’t think we’ve had a true quarterback competition since I’ve been here. What we have to have happen for Chris and for our program is for somebody to push him. He’s almost been the quarterback by default around here.”
The Bobcats picked up an addition to its QB crop on Wednesday. The Arizona Republic in Phoenix reported that Peoria, Arizona, QB Ruben Beltran has committed to MSU and will sign a letter of intent.
Beltran, who participated in spring drills at Phoenix College, won an Arizona 5A state title in 2017 at Peoria Centennial High School.