The Montana State Bobcats are entering the fall football season with a noticeable amount of confidence and swagger.
That’s what happens when you have one of the best quarterbacks in the FCS and a bolstered offense like the one in Bozeman.
“Confidence is a good thing, and we decided as a coaching staff we’re going to embrace all of that,” ninth-year head coach Rob Ash said of the team’s lofty expectations this season. “It’s OK to be confident, and I think our team is a confident team. There’s a big difference between confidence and over-confidence, and we’re certainly not over-confident. This is a group of guys that knows how to work, and knows work is the key to success, but I don’t think it hurts to be confident and I think this group is.”
Coaches in the Big Sky Conference have given MSU the top ranking in the preseason poll and a slight edge ahead of Eastern Washington, the reigning conference champ. Both teams received six first-place votes.
The Bobcats kick off the season Sept. 3 with a home game against Fort Lewis College at 7 p.m. After that MSU heads to Cheney, Washington, to take on Eastern Washington on Sept. 19 in a 2 p.m. game that will be televised on ROOT Sports.
A year after finishing 8-5 overall and 6-2 in conference, the Bobcats return nine offensive starters, including junior quarterback Dakota Prukop, an FCS offensive player of the year candidate and preseason first team All-America offensive guard J.P. Flynn.
A product of Austin, Texas, Prukop had a breakout season as a first-year starter in 2014, passing for 2,559 yards and 18 touchdowns. He completed 65 percent of his passes. He also gained 1,152 yards on the ground and another 13 TDs. Under his lead, the Bobcats set records for total yards and points in 2014.
“Dakota and the offense are a known quantity,” Ash said, “and they’ll have a target. Dakota won’t be an unknown this year, and team’s will have time to prepare.”
Prukop was named one of 22 entries on the first FCS offensive player of the year watch list.
Dakota is very deserving of all the preseason watch lists and honors,” Ash said. “He’s recognized as one of the best quarterbacks in the country.”
The offense also features a few local names who could contribute handily, such as Austin Barth, a junior tight end from Columbia Falls.
“Tight end is the one position without any real starting experience, and Beau Sandland and Austin Barth are extremely capable players,” Ash said.
Joel Horn, a senior from Kalispell and former Glacier Wolfpack standout, is the team’s starting center. He started all 13 games a year ago.
Freshman running back Logan Jones, a member of the 2014 Glacier Wolfpack state championship football team, and redshirt freshman running back Noah James, another former standout member of the Glacier Wolfpack, have also been making a name for themselves early in practices and received praise from Ash.
The great unknown is the defense.
MSU returns only three full-time starters. All-Big Sky selection Taylor Sheridan will anchor the defensive line as a standout tackle. Senior cornerback Bryson Keeton is the lone starter back in the secondary. Khari Garcia is back as safety.
“There is a lot to be decided at safety, where we have four players battling for two spots,” Ash said. “And I’m anxious to see how the cornerback opposite Bryson Keeton turns out. The other undecided positions aren’t as compelling because at linebacker and running back, for instance, we’ll rotate people. But the secondary will be interesting.”
MSU does have the benefit of five transfers who could quickly reinforce the defense. The new faces include safeties Desman Carter, who came from Alabama-Birmingham and Nevada, and Bryson McCabe, who came from South Dakota State and Iowa Western.
There’s also linebackers Zachary Stern, a former junior college track runner from Santa Monica junior college, and Marcus Tappan, from Cincinnati. Two other linemen – Shiloh LeBoy and Joe Naotala — could have immediate impacts.
The Bobcat defense finished ninth in scoring defense and 12th in total defense last season.
The special teams squad has talent, too, with preseason First Team All-Big Sky special teams player Chad Newell joining kicker Luke Daly and punter Trevor Bolton to form a strong core.
Ash and the Bobcats are eyeing a second-straight playoff appearance and additionally look to end a two-year hiatus as Big Sky Champions.
“I think we have good leaders across the board,” Ash said. “Our captains are great, but we have guys like JP (Flynn) and John (Weidenaar) and Joel (Horn) in the offensive line, we have good leaders in addition to Taylor (Sheridan, a team captain) in the D-line.”
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