With 18-plus returning starters, the Montana Grizzlies football team took the field today to begin spring drills.
“This might be as excited as I’ve ever been for spring football and that’s a lot of them,” second-year Griz head coach Mick Delaney said in a news release from UM.
“The kids are excited, the coaches are excited, and there’s just a lot of energy – and it’s positive energy. We’ve had our struggles here in the last year, but things are starting to come around.”
The Grizzlies will hold 15 practices at the Riverbowl practice site and inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Spring practice sessions will be closed to the public this year, according to UM. The Griz will have three scrimmages this spring with the remaining two slated for Saturday, April 13th in Ronan starting at noon, and Friday, April 19 beginning at 7 p.m. in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The one big question going into spring drills a year ago was the quarterback position, where there was zero starting experience. That is not the case in 2013.
Sophomore Trent McKinney (6-1, 204) started the first eight games last season, while junior Shay Smithwick-Hann (6-4, 214) started the last three contests. Also back in action is junior Jordan Johnson (6-1, 202), who started in 13 of 14 games in 2011 for the 11-3 Grizzlies.
McKinney was 134-of-205-8 for 1,350 yards and 8 TDs, and also rushed for 399 yards and 7 scores. Smithwick-Hann completed 85-of-139-3 for 993 yards and 8 touchdowns. Johnson threw for 2,400 yards and 21 touchdowns, going 205-of-343-9, and rushed for 506 yards and 4 TDs. His 2,400 passing yards were the 21st most in single-season history at UM.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brady Gustafson (6-7, 230), is a very proficient passer and should be in the mix as well.
“Our quarterback position is as solid as you can ever hope for in FCS football,” Delaney said. “Obviously the return of Jordan Johnson is a big shot in the arm for us, but he’s missed a year of football. Shay and Trent both played and started last year, and Brady Gustafson is probably as good a freshman redshirt as there is in the whole conference. We’re going to have four guys plus a freshman coming in. That will make us much, much better at that position in the fall of 2013.”
The Griz went 5-6 a year ago (3-5 in the Big Sky Conference), and had their first losing season since 1985. A crux of the starters are back on defense, with 10 starters (which includes 23 lettermen) returning from a team that was ranked fourth in the FCS in rushing defense, allowing just 92.55 yards a game.
“I really believe that teams that are successful are built around their defense,” Delaney said.
“I take a look at where we’re at in the spring of 2013 compared to the fall of 2012, where we had players who had not played much or never started, and from top to bottom we’re two-deep with guys who can win for us.
Leading the way on defense are linebacker Jordan Tripp and defensive end Zach Wagenmann, both named first team all-league.
Montana returns its three leading tacklers in starting linebackers Tripp, Brock Coyle, and John Kanonagata’a, who are all seniors. Coyle had a team-high 107 tackles, while Kanongata’a was third with 72, and both players were honorable mention all-league picks. Tripp was second on the team with 95 stops and had a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss, which ranked him 26th in the country.
“Our linebackers are back in tact and they’re going to get competition too, but we’ve got three seniors who are proven players, with some good leadership skills,” Delaney said.
Wagenmann, a junior, was ranked fourth in the nation with 1.05 (11.5) sacks, and second in the squad with 13.0 stops for losses. Wagenmann will not participate in spring drills due to an injury. Also back are senior starting defensive tackle Alex Bienemann (32 total tackles) and junior noseguard Tonga Takai (30 TT). Both players received All-Big Sky honorable mention recognition.
The heir-apparent to the one starting berth at end vacated by Josh Harris is sophomore Tyrone Holmes, who started one game as a true freshman and had 25 stops and 5.0 sacks.
“I love our defensive line, they just came along week-by-week last year,” Delaney said.
In the secondary, seniors Bo Tully (64 TT) and Matt Hermanson (67 TT) started 11 and 10 games respectively at strong and free safety, and each had two interceptions. Hermanson was an honorable mention all-conference selection. Senior Steven Rominger (23 TT) also had one start at free safety.
Senior Sean Murray (50 TT/two interceptions) started all 11 games at the “boundary” cornerback position, and was an honorable mention all-league pick, while senior Anthony Goodwin (38 TT/one pick) and junior Joshua Dennard (46 TT/one pick) shared the starting job at the “field” corner spot. Sophomore Nate Harris (39 TT) had two starts at cornerback.
“We have to gear towards consistency,” Delaney said. “We’re going to be a good offensive football team. We’re going to attack. We’re going to do some things a little differently on offense, but a lot of it will be the same in some areas. What we’ve got to do is develop consistency on offense. We don’t need to identify starters at every spot, but we do need to have competition and develop depth at every position.”
The Grizzlies only first team all-league pick on offense is 6-8, 325-pound senior Danny Kistler Jr., although UM does return three full-time starters on the O-line. Also back are 6-8, 330-pound senior guard William Poehls (11 starts) and center Kjelby Oiland (9 starts), a 6-4, 295-pound senior. Oiland earned all-league honorable mention honors. Poehls will not participate in spring drills because of an injury.
Junior guard/center Logan Hines (6-4, 291) and sophomore tackle John Schmaing (6-7, 285), each had a pair of starts. There are also several redshirt freshmen expected to contribute on the O-line this season.
“I think we’re going to be better on the offensive line than we were a year ago,” Delaney said.
UM lost its three top receivers in wide receiver Sam Gratton (29 catches) and tight end Greg Hardy (29 receptions). But, at wide-out talented sophomore Ellis Henderson (6-0, 185) and junior Mitch Saylor (6-5, 217), had 23 and 22 catches last season, along with senior Cam Warren (15 grabs). Sophomore speedster Taylor Walcott (6-0, 175) and junior Sean Haynes (6-3, 190) are also expected to be factors, and the Griz will welcome six or seven prep wide receivers to fall camp.
Second team all-league running back Peter Nguyen graduated, and ended his stellar career ranked sixth in school history with 1,985 career rushing yards. Also gone is halfback/fullback Dan Moore, who rushed for 413 yards in just five games, but missed most of the season with an injury.
Junior Jordan Canada (5-9, 172) was second on the team with 586 rushing yards for 4 TDs a year ago, and Marshall transfer Travon Von (5-11, 195, Jr.) should be a major contributor. Sophomore Joey Counts (5-9, 220) played as a true freshman last season and will be in the mix.
Montana returns both its kicker and punter in sophomores Chris Lider (6-1, 200) and Stephen Shaw (6-3, 235). Lider made 15-of-21 field goal attempts (long of 46) and 37-of-41 PATs. He was tied for ninth in the nation with 1.36 field goals a game, and chosen honorable mention all-league. Shaw was ranked 21st in the FCS, averaging 41.83 yards on 54 attempts, and was also an honorable mention all-league pick.
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