BOZEMAN — The rehab is over, the pain is gone, and the only things left are a wide smile and a renewed hunger for Montana State linebacker Na’a Moeakiola.
“I’m just happy to be back,” Moeakiola said Thursday during the Bobcats’ football media day. “I just try to take the lead and try to be vocal and instill confidence in the other guys and let them know that I’ll be there for them whenever they need me.
“We can do anything if we put our minds together and play together as one.”
Rebounding from a disappointing 2013 season — which ended with three consecutive losses and a missed chance at a playoff berth — was a major theme for MSU players as they bounced from interview to interview on the Bobcat Stadium turf.
For Moeakiola, this season represents the ultimate second chance. And the leadership the Euless, Texas, product provides on defense is something you can’t put a price on.
“He brings a level of experience out there that is just awesome,” defensive lineman Odin Coe said.
Moeakiola wasn’t there for his teammates last season, at least not in the way he wanted. The fierce middle linebacker injured his right shoulder during spring practice and underwent surgery last summer, forcing him to miss the entire 2013 season.
Initially, Moeakiola had the choice of postponing the operation and simply playing through the pain. But he knew that option would only hinder his on-field impact and put him at greater risk for injury.
The decision to have surgery “was extremely difficult,” Moeakiola said. “I didn’t want to let last year’s senior class down. But I knew it was the best decision, not just for myself but for the team as a whole.
“I didn’t want to go out there and not give it my all and be a little hesitant because I wasn’t confident with my shoulder. I felt it was the right decision. The coaches and the staff were behind me the whole way.”
The last time the 6-foot, 226-pounder was on the field he had a huge year. As a junior in 2012, though overshadowed by Buck Buchanan Award winner Caleb Schreibeis, Brad Daly, Zach Minter and Jody Owens, Moeakiola finished second on the team with 89 tackles. He made 13 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
“He was the glue that held all of those guys together,” Bobcats coach Rob Ash said.
“He’s the prototype middle ’backer because he can defend the run and the pass, he gets us lined up properly, he has the right temperament because he’s cool and fiery at the same time. It’s great to have him back.”
Moeakiola will be flanked in the middle of the defense by fellow seniors Alex Singleton and Cole Moore, which gives the Bobcats one of the top linebacker units the Big Sky Conference has to offer.
“You want to be out there on the field with your brothers,” Moeakiola said. “Now I’m here and I’m just worried about today and thankful to have another opportunity to play the game that I love.”
QBs fight on
Ash and his staff aren’t much closer to naming a starting quarterback, although the eighth-year coach indicated that he hopes to be nearing a decision after Saturday’s scrimmage. The competition between Jake Bleskin, Dakota Prukop and Quinn McQueary will rage on until then.
“It’s just a matter of sitting down and adding up the plusses and the minuses and making a choice, hopefully after Saturday,” Ash said. “But it could go longer than that if we find a reason to carry it on.”
The team is waging a quarterback battle for the first time since 2010, when upstart freshman DeNarius McGhee beat senior Cody Kempt for the starting job. McGhee went on to set numerous school records; Kempt is now the wide receivers coach at MSU.
“It’s really important for everybody in the quarterback room to know that the best player is going to play,” Bleskin said. “Whoever that is … if you’re a team guy you’ve got to live with that.
“The other guys in the room push me as much as I push them, because we’re all shooting for the same thing.”
Notes and quotes
• Number changes can be confusing — and annoying. Now it’s time to get used to Shawn Johnson wearing No. 4.
The senior running back switched his jersey number this offseason after making No. 33 famous the previous three years. John Ellis, who wore No. 4 previously, is done, so Johnson pounced when he had the chance.
“Thirty-three was given to me. I never picked it,” Johnson said. “I never liked it. I never was a fan of it.”
• The Bobcats released kickoff times for 10 of their 12 games on Wednesday. The schedule includes a 7 p.m. start for their annual “Gold Rush” home opener on Sept. 6 against Division II Black Hills State.
“We love the night games,” Ash said. “We’re in the habit of doing them, and I think people are pretty pumped up about it.”
• A lot of eyes will be on heralded sophomore guard J.P. Flynn, especially now that fellow lineman Kyle Godecke is out indefinitely with an injured ankle. The 6-5, 304-pound Flynn, who hails from Bettendorf, Iowa, was thrust into the lineup last season and performed at an all-conference level. He was picked to the preseason All-Big Sky team this year.
“He has all the tools,” Ash said.