Cunha MSU’s likely starter, but QB competition still open

Not long after Minot State wrapped up its 2013 season with a 2-9 record, second-year starting quarterback Zac Cunha took a peek at the returning roster. One thing stuck out to him: He was the only quarterback.

When sophomore Matt Hanson elected to leave the program, Cunha become the Beavers’ lone signal-caller.

Now a junior, Cunha entered fall camp last week finally with some company in his position group. Junior college transfers Brad Hunt and Lucas Romanski signed letters of intent in January to join the Beavers, open this season Sept. 6 at Sioux Falls. And when first-year coach Tyler Hughes was hired in April, he kept recruiting, eventually attracting two talented juco transfers in redshirt sophomore Crosby Jensen and junior Jose Escobar.

“I was totally expecting it. It wasn’t a shocking move by any means,” Cunha said of the additions. “It’s good to have some guys in here, especially at practice. Sometimes sitting back and watching guys take reps with the 2s or 3s, you get to see what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s a different angle than being out there playing.”

As it turns out, Jensen and Escobar aren’t settling for those reps with the 2s and 3s. While the 6-foot-3, 233-pound Cunha is tentatively in line to start for a third year under center, Hughes admits it’s still an open competition.

“I told the guys that Zac is the starter until otherwise,” Hughes said. “But we are giving guys reps with the first team, giving guys an opportunity to prove themselves.”

In the past, the Beavers were a bit thin at the quarterback position. Now, they’ve got a trio of comparably able arms.

“They each bring some unique characteristics to the table,” Hughes said. “They each have their characteristics that lend to success on the field. I’m evaluating every day and I told them that. I’m getting them as many reps as we can possibly get them so we can get the problem of not having a defined starter solved.”

Last year, Cunha ranked seventh in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference with 213.8 passing yards per game. He converted 212 of 397 passes (53.4 percent) for 2,352 yards and 13 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. He showed marked improvement from his freshman campaign, when he was 157-of-307 passing (51.1 percent) for 1,982 yards and 14 touchdowns with 21 picks.

“He’s had all this experience in this conference and at Minot State,” Hughes said. “His confidence shows. He believes in himself. Even though the offense is new to him, Minot State is not new to him, so he has some confidence that way.”

After the first game of the 2012 season, Cunha swiped the top spot on the depth chart from classmate Bryce Jorgenson. He’s started every game since.

“I’ve never really had anything handed to me here,” Cunha said. “It’s definitely a good experience to have had – fighting for a spot and competing every day to be the No. 1 guy.”

Cunha has some NSIC experience to his advantage, but Jensen is every bit as mature.

He describes himself as a “22-year-old redshirt sophomore.”

After spending a year redshirting at Snow College in Utah – where Hughes spent time as an offensive coordinator from 2004-10 and two years as head coach from 2011-12 – the 6-1, 190-pound Jensen left for a two-year mission with The Church of the Latter-day Saints in Louisiana. He returned to Snow last fall and started for the Badgers, completing 182 of 327 passes (55.7 percent) for 1,913 yards and 15 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.

“I’m a pocket passer,” said the left-handed Jensen. “I’m able to go through reads and make check-downs and make sure I’m trying to take care of the ball. That’s the No. 1 priority, no turnovers. That’s what I work towards, especially in (Hughes’) offense.”

Shortly after taking over the reins of the MSU program, Hughes reached out to Jensen.

“I was really close with him,” Jensen said. “He’s the one that recruited me to Snow.”

Said Hughes: “I thought he would provide some good skill into our program. I honestly felt like he could potentially be a starter for us.”

Jensen certainly aims for that role, but indicates he is more internally focused.

“We’re competing against each other, but mostly ourselves to make ourselves better,” Jensen said. “He (Hughes) always talks about doing your job and making sure you’re doing everything you can to make the team produce and continue to move forward.”

The other contender, Escobar, a highly touted All-America Community College selection in 2013, played the past two seasons at Fullerton College in California. He received interest from Division I programs Texas-San Antonio and Sacramento State, along with Division II schools Minnesota State-Mankato, North Carolina-Pembroke and West Liberty (W.Va.), among others.

MSU defensive coordinator Byron Thomas, a fellow California native, began recruiting him before Hughes arrived.

“I clicked with him right away,” said the 6-1, 215-pound Escobar. “I liked that he stayed loyal to me. I had to make up some units and credits to be able to come here and he actually believed that I could do it when a lot of other coaches got scared away. I wanted to stay loyal to him.”

Escobar arrived in Minot two weeks ago and began practice two days later. He said he’s lost four pounds during fall camp and hopes to get down to his “playing weight” of 210 pounds. Besides that, he’s focused on bringing what Hughes calls “juice” to the Beavers.

“A little swag on the field, being confident about my game, knowing what the defense does, knowing that I know how to beat that defense,” Escobar said. “I can be a playmaker from the quarterback position in the pocket, not just with my feet.”

Last season, he completed 217 of 317 passes (68.5 percent) for 3,301 yards and 26 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.

“Jose is just a very, very confident player,” Hughes said. “He had a great season last year at Fullerton College and really believes in himself. He’s a good leader on the field.”

All three quarterbacks boast attributes the others hope to attain. Cunha experience. Jensen understanding of Hughes’ pro-style offense. Escobar a field-general-type leadership presence.

Hughes has two weeks to cement one of the three as starting quarterback, which he says is his top priority.

“We’re going to ask them to do a lot,” Hughes said, “and as they figure out exactly what they’re doing, we’re going to ask them to do even more.”