BILLINGS — First things first: Montana State football coach Jeff Choate says all-purpose star Troy Andersen can “without a doubt” return to form next year after injuries either limited his production or forced him from the lineup outright in 2019.
Andersen, a junior this past season, sat out the final four games — a 48-14 win over rival Montana as well as the Bobcats’ playoff run to the FCS semifinals — despite his best intentions to play. The Dillon product had multiple ailments, including a right knee injury that required the use of a cumbersome brace even when he was in street clothes.
But none of that prevented Andersen from being voted first-team All-Big Sky Conference at outside linebacker, the third position at which he’s attained postseason accolades in his career.
“The good news is there’s nothing that’s going on with him that’s going to require surgery,” Choate said Friday morning. “He just needs some rest. He played through a lot of things that, quite honestly, a lot of guys don’t always play through. I think that speaks to his toughness and his desire to compete.
“I’m excited to see where he continues to go based on a year to really, truly develop physically.”
Montana State’s trip to the playoff semifinals — which resulted in a 42-14 loss at No. 1 North Dakota State — was the culmination of a historic season.
With an 11-4 record, the Bobcats reached double-digit wins for just the fourth time in 43 years. Their runaway win over Montana was their fourth in a row in the series, their longest streak since the 1970s. They played deeper in the playoffs since their most recent national championship season of 1984.
Thirty-five years can feel like an eternity.
“That hadn’t been done in a long, long time at Montana State. It isn’t easy to do,” Choate said. “There’s been some great teams that have faltered in the quarterfinals. But I think getting there gives you the ability to know what it takes to get back.”
Therein lies the question: Will the Bobcats contend at that same level in 2020? Choate indicated that the team will continue to push conventional boundaries to produce similar rushing totals on offense — which led the Big Sky at 258.1 yards per game.
Isaiah Ifanse will be the featured runner when healthy — and he wasn’t for much of 2019 — but different pieces must be implemented with the losses of outgoing seniors like Logan Jones and Travis Jonsen.
“You’re never going to have enough good depth at running back if you’re a running team, so I think that’s always going to be an area of concern,” Choate said. “We need young guys to evolve. Lane Sumner is a guy whose role is going to need to expand. I think looking at a guy like Jaharie Martin, for example — (he) came here as a linebacker, but we need a big back.
“I’m more concerned about replacing the things that, in particular, Travis did than replacing what he did as a receiver. I think there’s young guys in our program that can put the numbers up that he put up at receiver, but can they give us that plus-1 run threat and run the show the way he did?
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“I think that’s something that we’re actively looking for. I look at even like a Brody Grebe that can probably come in and do some of those things for us.”
At quarterback, Tucker Rovig emerged at midseason and played increasingly well as the season went on. Choate has lauded the winning pedigree of Rovig, who will be a junior in 2020.
Choate expects a robust competition.
“With the addition of Matt McKay and even Tommy Mellott, who is a different type of player, we’ve got a variety of athletes in that room,” he said. “Obviously Tucker led us to a historic season down the stretch, and I still have a lot of confidence in Casey (Bauman’s) ability.”
The defense will continue to be built from the trenches outward. MSU’s defensive line has been its strength in each of the past two seasons, and again the team will need to develop bodies to overcome the loss of great productivity — this time the likes of sack master Bryce Sterk, Derek Marks and role player Marcus Ferriter.
The loss of the safety tandem of Brayden Konkol and Jahque Alleyne will also be difficult to counter.
“I like our young corners. I’m not as nervous about corner as I am at safety,” Choate said. “We’ve got to find a way to kind of get the safety thing figured out.”
The replacement of kicker Tristan Bailey and punter Jered Padmos is also of concern, though Choate said a lot will be expected of incoming freshman Bryce Leighton, who played in the Under Armour High School All-America game.
As for staff continuity, Choate said there’s a chance that his batch of full-time assistants could remain intact, which would be a first in his tenure at MSU. But the AFCA coaches convention is Jan. 12-14 in Nashville, Tennessee, and there’s always the potential for movement.
For what it’s worth, Choate said he’s had no substantive communication with anyone about his own opportunities to move on.
“I have not had any serious conversations with anybody,” Choate said. “I’ve had some would-you-be-interested-in type of things, but I haven’t had any serious conversations, and I don’t really anticipate that happening this year.”
“I think most people are looking for a new car,” he said. “They’re looking for a shiny new Camaro or a Corvette. I’m kind of an old truck. I’m pretty reliable; I start most of the time. But I don’t know that I fit that sexy mold that a lot of AD’s are looking for.”
Due to weather concerns, Choate said spring drills will be held later than normal this year, beginning with conditioning on March 23. He said MSU's annual spring game will be held April 18.