When Shay Smithwick-Hann and Zack Wagenmann were both growing up in western Montana in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was the height of the Griz dynasty. Washington-Grizzly Stadium — the largest outdoor arena in the state — was home to national champions and the giants of the Big Sky. Between 1993 and 2009, the Montana Grizzlies won or shared the conference title 15 times.
But over the last four seasons, the Griz fell from the top and came up empty handed.
Now a generation of players who grew up watching the great Griz teams of the past is trying to restore the tradition of excellence.
“We saw the success they had and we want to continue it. For the last couple years we haven’t done what we’d hoped to do and we’ve had a few missteps. But we’re really proud of where we’re at now,” said Smithwick-Hann, Montana’s senior backup quarterback and a Kalispell native.
Even though his role has been more active from the sidelines than on the field, Smithwick-Hann has developed into a bona fide leader at UM and is helping guide the Griz into another fall campaign where high expectations await.
The season kicks off Aug. 30 when Montana plays at Wyoming. The game will be televised on ROOT Sports.
With a strong core of returning players, including Wagenmann on defense and quarterback Jordan Johnson leading the offense, Montana was picked to finish second in the conference, vying for the title with two-time reigning champ Eastern Washington. The Griz were ranked fifth in the nation in the first Football Championship Subdivision preseason coaches’ poll. EWU was tabbed second and three-time defending national champion North Dakota State was named No. 1.
As the polls show, the Griz will have to take down two formidable foes in order to retain their prominence.
Last season was a step in the right direction — Montana eliminated rival Montana State in the regular-season finale and qualified for the FCS playoffs with an at-large bid. Coastal Carolina defeated Montana 42-35 in the second round in Missoula.
Last week the program welcomed back 14 starters for fall camp, as well as several up-and-coming prospects who could emerge as household names this fall.
Johnson is already known for being one of the best signal callers in the nation. The senior quarterback was named to the Walter Payton Award Watch List, joining 19 other players who are deemed among the most outstanding in the FCS. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder will be starting for his third season and boasts a 20-6 overall record.
“It was definitely a good feeling (being nominated for the Payton award), but also, this offseason I feel like we have a ton of unfinished business, and we didn’t necessarily get as far as we would have liked last year,” said Johnson. “I think that’s been some added motivation to the guys coming back. We had a bad taste in our mouths for sure from last season.”
Johnson is one of the offensive co-captains this season along with senior running back Jordan Canada, one of the most prolific running backs in school history. Canada enters his final season ranked fourth in both career rushing yards with 2,228 and career touchdowns with 29.
Along with Canada, senior Travon Van and sophomore John Nguyen both return as solid, athletic backups. There’s also talented redshirt freshman Treshawn Favors, who could surprise fans even with limited minutes.
Johnson also has a few talented weapons at his disposal. Ellis Henderson has garnered a lot of attention leading up to the season as a potential breakout player. The 6-0, 185-pound junior wide receiver and return specialist is one of Johnson’s two favorites targets back for Montana, along with junior Jamaal Jones. The duo combined for 85 catches, 1,768 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.
On defense, Wagenmann is earning praise as one of the best defensive ends in the nation. The 6-3, 255-pound Missoula native was named to the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, which recognizes the best defenders in the nation. Wagenmann will start for his third season and serve as a co-captain along senior nose tackle Tonga Takai. Tyrone Holmes is back at the other end, providing Montana one of the best defensive fronts in the conference.
“Our defensive line is as good as anybody in the country. I think they’re the strength of our team,” said Smithwick-Hann.
Montana does have a few holes on the offensive line. Three all-league linemen — Danny Kistler Jr. (right tackle), Kjelby Oiland (center), and William Poehls (right guard) —graduated, and the replacements will play a large factor in Johnson’s success.
“From top to bottom, offense and defense, I think we are right where we need to be,” head coach Mick Delaney said. “We’ve got to develop some young offensive linemen who have not really had an opportunity to be on the field for the Griz, but they are ready to step up and prove that they can play at this level.”
A few local players are suiting up for Montana, including redshirt junior Derek Crittenden, a defensive end from Whitefish. He is the team’s third leading returning tackler. There’s also Jackson Thiebes, a sophomore from Kalispell who was moved from tight end to offensive line this spring. Two incoming freshmen, Sean Foley of Whitefish and Evan Epperly of Kalispell are joining the ranks.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.