MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzly football team begins its second year of spring practice under head coach Bobby Hauck on Tuesday, weather permitting.
Practices were to begin on Monday, but were pushed back at least one day by frigid temperatures, the school announced Sunday night.
The purpose of spring practice is largely for individual development, skill work and a period for coaches to evaluate newcomers or rising players who are looking to take on bigger roles.
Montana, which went 6-5 last season, didn’t replace any coaches during the offseason. It lost 12 seniors to graduation or transfer, and had six other players leave during or after the season. The Griz also signed a class of 26 players, only two of whom are enrolled for the spring. They added two players who grayshirted in the fall and have multiple players eligible who sat out last season, giving them a total of 86 players on the spring roster.
Here are five storylines to watch during the 15 days of spring practice, which runs from Tuesday through April 13, when the Spring Game will take place at Legends Field in Kalispell.
Sophomore Adam Eastwood is the lone returning running back for the Griz after the graduation of Alijah Lee and the transfer of senior Jeremy Calhoun and sophomore Rey Green. He didn’t even lead the team in rushing yards because quarterback Dalton Sneed took that honor.
The Griz welcome in a junior college transfer in Marcus Knight, who could be fighting for carries in the backfield. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound running back rushed for 912 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman at Citrus College, averaging 82.9 yards per game and 7.0 per carry.
Redshirt freshman Drew Turner is the only other running back currently with the team. He’s a 6-foot, 210-pound back from Glacier. Redshirt freshmen Levi Janacaro and Garrett Graves took some snaps at running back last year, but Janacaro is still listed as a fullback, and Graves remains listed as a quarterback.
This goes for both the offensive and defensive lines.
The Grizzlies’ offensive line was its weakest position group last year because of youth and lack of depth. They return two players who started all 11 games — junior tackle Conlan Beaver and sophomore tackle Colton Keintz — while senior center Cody Meyer started 10 of 11 games. As for depth, the Griz have 20 offensive linemen on the spring roster, the most of any group, and brought in a junior college transfer, Kordell Pillans, who has two years of starting experience.
Senior right guard Cy Sirmon started the last nine games. The defensive line graduated two of its top players in defensive end Reggie Tilleman and defensive tackle David Shaw, who ate up blocks to free up linebackers to make tackles. Returning senior Jesse Sims tallied 42 tackles last year, the same amount as the next two returning linemen — redshirt sophomores Braydon Deming and RJ Nelson — had combined.
The Griz primarily played with a five-man secondary last year and will have to replace three of 10 players from the two-deep: safeties Reid Miller and Evan Epperly, and cornerback Lewis Cowans.
The starters at safety may be set with Robby Hauck, Gavin Robertson and Josh Sandry, but the Griz can add more depth. Senior Jalen Hemphill previously spent time at FBS San Jose State, redshirt freshman Nash Fouch was a 3-star safety and sophomore Michael McGinnis from Sidney could be looking for a bigger role. How will former Loyola standout David Koppang look?
Cornerback is a group that could be bolstered after struggling at times. Senior Justin Calhoun, a converted wide receiver, junior Dareon Nash and junior Josh Egbo make up the core of returners. Senior Kadeem Hemphill, who was previously at FBS San Jose State, could compete for playing time. Then there’s junior Nick Fouch, a high school quarterback and former walk-on receiver, who didn’t get any playing time last year, and senior Kobey Eaton, who switched from receiver last year and didn’t record any stats in five games.
Grayshirts gear up to go
Montana had two players in its 2018 recruiting class who grayshirted in the fall semester and will take the field for the first time with the Griz during the spring. Both were highly touted recruits, and getting a spring camp in the books could give them a leg up on incoming freshmen.
Braxton Hill, a freshman from Anaconda, is listed as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker. He grayshirted in the fall while recovering from an injury that limited him to two games as a high school senior. He had 31 tackles as a senior and 113 in eight games as a junior. The linebacker group has to replace starter Josh Buss, and maybe Jace Lewis bumps up to there from backup.
The other grayshirt is freshman Cole Grossman, from Vancouver, Washington. He’s listed as a 6-foot-4, 205-pound tight end. Grossman caught 56 passes for 831 yards and six touchdowns across his junior and senior seasons in high school. The tight ends, of which there are currently seven, were used more for blocking than pass catching last year, but maybe that changes if the offensive line play improves.
The biggest special teams position to fill is punter following the graduation of Eric Williams. Montana has four players listed as a punter or a kicker/punter combo: senior Adam Wilson, juniors Brandon Purdy and Gabe Peppenger, and redshirt freshman Nathaniel Morin-Ferguson.
Kicker Tim Semenza handled extra points and field goals for Montana last year, but could he potentially be challenged by Peppenger, who transferred from Montana State and sat out last year because of a transfer rule? Peppenger handled field goals, extra points and kickoffs for the Cats in 2016 and 2017, making 9 of 15 field goal attempts and 98 percent of his extra points.