MISSOULA — Sacramento State quarterback Kevin Thomson was expecting to get one year of eligibility back because of injuries that have slowed his college career.
Then he got a surprise from the NCAA when he was awarded a two-year extension that’ll give him seven seasons of eligibility by the time he’s thrown his final pass in 2020.
“It’s really exciting because with coach Taylor coming in, it’s just more time to master the offense,” Thomson said during media days last month in Spokane. “Hopefully more time to just do what we want to do here at Sacramento State, like be great, compete for a championship and kind of build a new foundation now.”
Thomson isn’t the only Big Sky Conference quarterback who’s been granted at least six years of eligibility because of injuries. Comeback quarterbacks abound as Northern Colorado’s Jacob Knipp and Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus both return for a sixth season.
Thomson’s journey hasn’t been what he expected when he was recruited to UNLV by current Montana head coach Bobby Hauck and offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach. He tore the UCL in his throwing elbow while redshirting in 2014, had surgery and never played a snap for the Rebels in two seasons. He didn't appear on a roster in 2016, but his eligibility clock kept rolling.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Thomson transferred to Sacramento State in 2017 and has thrown for 3,208 yards, 25 touchdowns and four interceptions while rushing for 628 yards and nine scores. He’s only played in 15 games at Sacramento State across the past two seasons because of injuries.
Now he’s feeling ready to go again, crediting strength and conditioning coach Ryan Deatrick with helping him get to this point.
“This is the best I’ve felt physically in my entire football career,” Thomson said. “I was able to put on a good amount of weight while keeping my speed and agility. I really focused on the physical aspect this offseason, which was big for me.”
Thomson has been back since spring ball, learning a new offense under head coach Troy Taylor. The emphasis will be on going uptempo.
“Kevin is a true dual-threat guy,” Taylor said. “He’s athletic. He can run the ball. He can throw it. He’s sharp. We’ll be able to be pretty dynamic with him.”
Taylor added: “He brings some peace of mind for everybody. It’s certainly nice as a head coach and offensive coordinator to have a quarterback that’s played and played successfully and has had that experience. It’s a good place to start.”
Outside expectations aren’t high for Sacramento State. The Hornets were picked 11th by the coaches and 12th by the media in the preseason conference polls.
Thomson is hoping to prove those voters wrong.
“People don’t expect much from us,” he said. “That’s similar to what happened two years ago, and we surprised a few people. Every year you have teams that are expected to finish at the bottom and they might surprise you and pop right up around the top. That’s what we’re expecting to do.”
Northern Colorado was picked to finish last in both the preseason coaches and media polls, but the Bears will have a veteran quarterback who’ll try to help them exceed those expectations.
Jacob Knipp has been back since spring ball thanks to a medical waiver because of the broken collarbone he suffered last season. In fact, each of his past three seasons have been ended early because of an injury, allowing him to play in just 10 games during that stretch.
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The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Knipp has thrown for 4,128 yards with 28 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 20 games across the past four seasons. Dealing with injuries the past three years, he’s been unable to regain the form of his redshirt freshman season, when he totaled 1,969 passing yards in leading the Bears to a 6-5 record.
Northern Colorado head coach Earnest Collins has been encouraged by what Knipp can do to run the offense — as long as he stays healthy.
“There’s really nothing you can’t ask of him because he can do pretty much whatever you need him to do,” Collins said. “We want him to just manage our offense. It’s really about us getting all of our other guys to make sure they understand that just keep him upright and he can do some special things for us.
“He’s going to have command, he’s going to have control of whatever he wants to do in our offense because he understands it and he’s been around for a while, so he understands how to manipulate defenses. I’m just looking forward to seeing him do it.”
Collins saw Knipp returning to form during spring camp. One moment that stood out came during a scrimmage when he checked out of a run play and completed a 25-yard pass over the top of the defense while leading a 12-play touchdown drive.
“That’s just Jacob,” Collins said. “He’s a smart kid. He knows defenses. He knows how to read them. He knows when he sees it. That’s the unique thing about the young man is he knows the position, he can play it and we just got to keep him upright so he can help the team win some ballgames.”
Northern Arizona quarterback Case Cookus has experienced an up-and-down career marred by injuries.
When healthy, Cookus has been one of the league’s premier quarterbacks. He threw for 3,111 yards with 37 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2015 as he was named the national freshman of the year. In 2017, he threw for 3,413 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Cookus suffered a season-ending injury following each of those seasons. He was limited to four games in 2016 and two games in 2018, the latter because of a broken collarbone.
In his final season, Cookus and Northern Arizona will try to exceed their preseason selection of sixth in the conference. The Lumberjacks have a new head coach in Chris Ball, who took the job in part because of the chance to work with a quarterback like Cookus.
“He’s extremely smart,” Ball said. “He’s got the ‘It’ factor when it comes to the quarterback position. He’s had some adversity in his career. He’s done a good job handling it. He’s very talented. Any time you talk about character, smart, work ethic, tough and talent, he’s got all those.”
Southern Utah quarterback Chris Helbig suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game last season, his first with the Thunderbirds after transferring from junior college. He returned for spring camp.
Then-Eastern Washington senior Gage Gubrud went down with a foot injury last season and was replaced by Eric Barriere, who led the Eagles to a national runner-up finish. Consequently, the former All-American grad transferred to Pac-12 Washington State.
At Montana State, Chris Murray would’ve been a redshirt junior after sitting out the 2018 season because of an academic suspension, but he was officially ruled to have left the team in June. Murray was the league’s freshman of the year in 2016, accounting for 4,359 yards of offense in 16 starts across the 2016 and 2017 seasons.