BOZEMAN — Fourth-year Montana State coach Jeff Choate has described Kevin Kassis as reliable, always in the right spots, able to catch almost any ball thrown to him and willing to take on a distinct leadership role for his teammates.
Kassis, a senior wide receiver from El Dorado, California, is a two-time captain and Montana State’s active leader in receptions (85), receiving yards (1,095) and touchdown catches (5), and seems like an ideal companion to help shepherd redshirt freshman Casey Bauman through the challenges of being a first-year starting quarterback.
New receivers coach Erik Frazier, who came to the team this offseason from Western Illinois, has echoed Choate’s sentiments during fall camp.
“He’s a vet, he’s seasoned, his work-ethic is unmatched,” Frazier said of Kassis. “It makes my job a little bit easier.
“He loves football, he wants to win, he’s not selfish, so it’s a breath of fresh air because the receiver position can be a very selfish position. But no one man is bigger than the mission we’re on as a team.”
Kassis (6-0, 200) is the leader of a receiving corps looking for greater productivity as MSU’s offense tries to strike the proper balance between its downhill running game and a desire to throw the ball more consistently down the field.
Kassis made 55 catches for 663 yards and three touchdowns last year.
Choate has lamented the fact that the Bobcats were down to just four receivers at the end of last season. But this year’s group, front-loaded with Kassis and fellow senior captain Travis Jonsen, will likely be used in both traditional and more creative ways to maximize its skills and manufacture more explosive plays.
The 6-4, 210-pound Jonsen, a former quarterback, and Willie Patterson (5-10, 180) are two that could benefit from that approach by at times taking snaps out of the backfield and catching quick passes in space to take advantage of their athleticism.
Jonsen was one of the offensive heroes of MSU's dramatic, 29-25 victory over Montana last November, catching 11 passes for 101 yards.
Patterson, a sophomore who played quarterback in high school, returns the lineup after missing the second half of last season due to a shoulder injury he suffered on the first play of the game in a loss at Weber State.
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“We definitely missed his presence and his productivity down the stretch,” Choate said of Patterson. “It’s good to have him back. Now he’s playing fast, and obviously we’re going to need him. Excited to see how he takes the next step in terms of his productivity this year.”
Choate implored junior Lance McCutcheon to play in a way his 6-3, 200-pound frame suggests he can — by challenging defensive backs and being more aggressive on 50/50 balls down the field. Choate has said McCutcheon has so far been more willing in that role, and the hope is that the Bozeman High product can be a viable deep threat.
Sophomore Coy Steel (5-9, 175) has made more than one difficult catch during fall camp and is battling for playing time. The same can be said for 6-4, 210-pound Billings Central product Peyton Hanser.
Mark Estes is also one to watch due to his speed on the outside. Estes (6-1, 180) is a redshirt freshman from Kalispell Glacier. Sophomore James Campbell (6-1, 175) established himself as one of the team’s better special teams performers in 2018.
One of the surprises of camp has been junior college transfer Tyrone Marshall, who continues to make solid plays. Marshall (6-1, 185) is a junior from Riverside Community College in California, the same JC that Jonsen attended after transferring away from Oregon.
Right now, it’s a deep group with good potential. It’s just a question of how the passing game comes together for an offense with an untested quarterback coming off a season in which it ran the ball a whopping 545 times in 13 games.
“We just have a lot of good guys that can make plays with the ball in their hands and can get open,” said Steel, a sophomore from Sheridan, Wyoming. “But if one week we run the ball 50 times, we’re just trying to win games. When we’re called upon we’ll be ready to make plays.”
The Bobcats have been holding out hope since last season that 6-foot-4, 210-pound wideout Jabarri Johnson will at some point return to the active roster.
Johnson suffered a debilitating knee injury during the spring of 2018, which required surgery and extensive rehabilitation. Choate told reporters on Tuesday that he’s “doubtful” that Johnson, who has one more year of eligibility remaining, will have an on-field role this season.
In the four-year Choate era, MSU’s wideouts have taken pride in their downfield blocking ability. Jonsen is one of the best in the business. It’s part of the reason why the running game consistently gets to the second and third level.
“I think we make a lot plays where a receiver makes a big block and then one of our backs goes for a long run,” Steel said. “Even on the short runs we try to get in there and mix it up. We focus on that a lot, just getting in there, being hard-nosed and being physical.”