“People are underestimating how good we are going to be. I think this team will be a lot better than what people think,” says Austin Barth, a former multi-sport standout at Columbia Falls.
Barth is entering his third season as a redshirt sophomore with the Montana State Bobcats, and the former Wildcat is confident this year’s squad will quickly reload and defy expectations.
It won’t be easy. Last year’s team, which underperformed and finished 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky Conference, was loaded with standout seniors. Head coach Rob Ash has the tough task of filling several key positions this fall, including quarterback. Four-year starter DeNarius McGhee, a two-time Big Sky Conference MVP, is gone, along with running back Cody Kirk, wide receiver Tanner Bleskin and Buck Buchanan award winner Brad Daly, a defensive end.
That talented core of Bobcats helped win three conference championships and advance to the playoffs three times in four years. MSU was 36-12 overall the past four seasons.
This year’s team does have 13 returning starters, including All-American return specialist and running back Shawn Johnson. But there’s no denying the Bobcats are in the midst of a transition.
Coaches tabbed MSU to finish third in the Big Sky Conference, just behind rival Montana. The first Football Championship Subdivision preseason coaches’ poll had the Bobcats ranked 19th in the nation. It extended the team’s streak to 61 consecutive weeks in the national rankings.
“It’s a complement to our program, without doubt,” Ash, entering his eighth year, said. “But it’s a reflection of what has happened, not what will happen. This group of guys will determine our fate, and it hasn’t played a game together yet. It’s exciting, but doesn’t have any bearing on the future.”
The Bobcats opened fall camp last week in preparation for the season opener Aug. 30 at Arkansas State. In the first few practices, the defense stood out, particularly three veteran linebackers — Alex Singleton, Na’a Moeakiola and Cole Moore — who presence and experience will provide a needed boost this fall. The entire defensive line is stacked with talent and should provide a strong backbone for this year’s team.
Yet much of the depth chart remains to be settled in the weeks leading up to Aug. 30. Especially at the quarterback position.
“The No. 1 priority is to choose a quarterback,” Ash said, “and that’s an unusual feeling. It’s reminiscent of 2010. It feels eerily similar to then, when we were making that decision.”
Right now three players are contending for the No. 1 spot — junior Jake Bleskin, sophomore Dakota Prukop and redshirt freshman Quinn McQueary. As the team’s backup last year, Bleskin played in six games and started two mid-season contests after McGhee went down with an injury. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Great Falls native threw for back-to-back 300 yard games in both starts, against Colorado Mesa and Stephen F. Austin, and finished the season with 733 passing yards and six touchdowns, along with one rushing TD.
The center position will feature a new starter as well, and it could see a Kalispell product emerge. Joel Horn, a junior and former Glacier High School standout, is vying for the key role on the offensive line. He played in all 12 games last year on special teams and was a reserve lineman.
Barth, who played quarterback and linebacker in high school, has transitioned to tight end and is vying for more minutes on the field this season. He’s also doing long snapping duties as well.
“It’s definitely a lot different than high school,” he said.
Barth said this year’s team is focusing on responding to change and adversity.
“It’s good to see guys step up. Obviously we have some big names to fill in but it’s good to see some people step up to the challenge,” Barth said.
It was apparent during the first week of camp that this year’s Bobcats team will be well conditioned. During the spring and summer, Ash and his staff revamped the physical conditioning program with the goal of ramping up the team’s tempo on the field.
“We’d love to play at a very fast tempo,” Ash said. “We want to play at the tempo that allows us to operate at our best, but being able to play fast is an intriguing option that’s available to us partly because of our physical condition.”
With that in mind, attention is already swirling around speedy running back Shawn Johnson to have a breakout year. Also, Ash is expecting big things from talented wide receiver Brian Flotkoetter.
Kalispell’s Noah James, a former Glacier standout, is playing for the Bobcats as a freshman this fall. He joins a roster featuring other local talent, including fellow Glacier alum Luke Halliburton, a sophomore backup defensive lineman; Dillon Fraley of Bigfork, a sophomore reserve offensive lineman; Eric Williamson, a redshirt freshman defensive lineman from Polson; Devin Jeffries, a redshirt freshman backup defensive lineman from Kalispell; and Connor Thomas, a sophomore defensive tackle from Kalispell.
Last year’s squad ended the season on a three-game skid, including a 28-14 loss to rival Montana in the regular-season finale.
This year’s schedule features four-straight home games in the first five weeks, including a matchup with two-time conference champ Eastern Washington on Sept. 20.
But as always, the regular season concludes with the most prominent football game in the state of Montana. The 114th Brawl of the Wild is in Missoula on Nov. 22.
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