The news is no longer new: Quarterback DeNarius McGhee is out with a separated throwing shoulder and redshirt sophomore Jake Bleskin will make his first start when the Bobcats take the field against Division II Colorado Mesa at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Players and coaches were alerted to that possibility shortly after Montana State’s 31-30 loss to Southern Methodist on Saturday in Dallas.
Bobcat fans, however, have been clamoring for information on what the injury means to the team and how Bleskin will perform as the starting quarterback. On Bobcatnation.com, a message board discussing all things Bobcats athletics, more than 200 posts have been made since Sunday morning discussing the team’s first new quarterback in more than three years and the estimated impact of losing McGhee.
If the narrative coming out of the program is any indication, Bleskin is going to do just fine filling in for the two-time Big Sky offensive MVP. More than a half dozen sources — including head coach Rob Ash, offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey and passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Brian Von Bergen — insist that Bleskin is up to the task and that the team is approaching this game as it would any other.
“His approach to the game hasn’t changed from last week to this week; it’s what Jake does,” Cramsey said during Tuesday’s news conference. “It’s how he prepares and he’ll be ready.”
Little of what has been said since McGhee was diagnosed with a separated shoulder of an undisclosed severity would indicate the Bobcats are the slightest bit unnerved with a new signal caller. Cramsey spoke often of his responsibility to prepare each quarterback as if they were the starter. Montana State’s current second-string quarterback, redshirt freshman Dakota Prukop, reiterated the level of each quarterback’s preparation.
“Coach Cramsey prepares all four quarterbacks everyday the same,” Prukop said following Tuesday’s afternoon practice. “We all prepare as starters everyday, that’s his big thing. I know he’s dealt with quarterback injuries in the past so he definitely takes that really seriously. I think anyone No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 could step in and do just fine.”
But how well prepared is the rest of the offense to welcome a new quarterback?
Colorado Mesa head coach Russ Martin has been candid about his defense’s intentions to blitz from all levels. If that’s the case, how are the protection calls handled without McGhee? How strong is the communication between Bleskin and his receivers when the Mavericks bring more blitzers than Montana State can account for?
“I know in my room the receivers are excited,” Von Bergen said. “We’re not going to change our mentality. We’re going to go at teams with balance and not feel like we can’t throw the ball; we’ve got a guy who can throw the ball.”
Von Bergen discussed the importance of getting his receivers — and every member of the first-string offense — as many repetitions with Bleskin as possible.
Von Bergen admitted the offense was inconsistent in its first practice with Bleskin, attributing the mistakes to the differences in the two quarterbacks.
“We had incompletes today, and some of it was Jake puts a little bit more loft, or a little more distance or it’s just slightly different,” Von Bergen said. “We just have to get used to it. That’s why we practice; the timing is critical. We know where we’re going but there is just the little details of the angles and the timing of it.”
Those small details appear to be the only element of the quarterback switch that has given some of the offensive coaches pause. Running backs coach Demo Odems remained optimistic about Bleskin but hinted that the communication between the running backs and the Great Falls CMR product may not be at the level the coaches desire.
“It’s just getting that feel and today was the first time of them having extended reps with each other — all three of those guys having those extended reps — so I thought it worked out pretty good today,” Odems said.
“We feel great about Jake; Jake is a student of the game just like DeNarius is. So we feel like — we always take the approach that it’s the next guy in. So, next guy in, we’ve got to roll. We don’t worry about who is the guy back there, we just have to make sure we do what we do to protect the guy back there.”
Kyle Sample can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @kylesample_bdc.