BILLINGS — Jeff Choate said he’d long been preparing for the potential loss of quarterback Chris Murray, but that didn’t make Wednesday’s announcement any easier for the Bobcats’ third-year head coach.
In a press release, Choate said Murray, MSU’s fleet-of-foot junior signal-caller, will miss the 2018 football season to focus on academics.
In a conference call, Choate didn’t say specifically whether or not Murray is academically ineligible or divulge what standards the player failed to meet. He only went so far as to call it "an academic issue."
But Choate did say the situation didn’t blindside the team.
“We really have planned for this since his grades came out last spring,” Choate said. “We knew that there was the potential for this to occur. We didn’t really get closure or finality from the university side or the eligibility side until (Monday). This was a hope-for-the-best and plan-for-the-worst type scenario.”
Murray, a product of Lawndale High School in Inglewood, California, began at MSU in the fall of 2016 as a kinesiology major, but Choate said Murray has since transitioned to general studies.
Choate said Murray will use his redshirt this season and put his attention squarely on his scholastic pursuits.
“The most important thing for him to do now is to own this and accept responsibility and move forward in a positive light,” Choate said. “I think this can be a real defining moment for him if he chooses to kind of battle through this and fight through it.
“Through my conversations with both Chris and his family, I think that’s what he intends to do, to utilize this as a redshirt year and get himself right and get back in good standing academically and come back to the team.”
Without Murray, the Bobcats will turn their attention to what figures to be a wide-open quarterback competition in fall camp. The main candidates are junior Travis Jonsen, redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig and true freshmen Casey Bauman and Ruben Beltran.
Choate said Troy Andersen, a Dillon product who played both running back and linebacker last season as a true freshman, could also be in the competition.
“Here’s the downside: We’re losing one of the more dynamic players on our team and certainly in the league with that ‘wow’ factor that (Murray) brings,” Choate said.
“Chris has been occasionally exceptional but the reality is he hasn’t been consistently good enough for us to be a winning team. What we’re striving for is to find that consistency. I think that we’re going to have a true competition for the first time since I’ve been here."
Choate described Jonsen as the wild card among the group. Jonsen transferred to Montana State during the winter from Riverside City College in California, but before that had been with the University of Oregon as a four-star recruit out of Servite High School in Southern California’s touted Trinity League.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Jonsen, though, broke his foot not long after he arrived in Bozeman when he slipped down some icy stairs. He missed all of spring practice. Choate said Jonsen has only recently been cleared for full participation.
Meanwhile, Rovig (6-5, 205) led Mountain View High School in Meridian, Idaho, to a state championship in 2016. Bauman (6-6, 225) accounted for 42 touchdowns at Nooksack Valley High in Everson, Washington, last fall.
Beltran (6-foot, 180) signed with MSU in June. He is a state championship-winning quarterback from Centennial High School in Peoria, Arizona.
Choate said he hopes to name a starter before the season opener against Western Illinois on Aug. 30 at Bobcat Stadium.
“The young man that ends up being our quarterback this year will probably be the young man that our team has the most confidence in, our coaches have the most confidence in and provides the best leadership for that unit,” Choate said.
Murray took over MSU’s starting quarterback job during the 2016 season when he was 17 years old. In 16 career starts Murray has accumulated a 7-9 record. He has put up 4,359 yards of offense and 43 total touchdowns. Murray is 2-0 against archrival Montana. He was named Big Sky Conference freshman of the year in 2016.
Murray rushed for 1,124 yards last season to become the first Montana State QB to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau.
But Murray will be concerned with a different set of numbers and goals going forward.
“I think what’s best for him and what’s best for our program is to truly focus on this academic piece,” Choate said.
“That’s the No. 1 job that he has — to work on himself, own this, step forward and grow as a man. And No. 2, realize that football is fleeting and what’s really going to sustain you in life is the ability to work through tough situations, overcome adversity and to give yourself something to fall back on.”