MISSOULA — It feels like things are picking up where they left off a year ago when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament and Montana’s spring football camp on back-to-back days.
The Griz began spring camp Friday, starting a 37-day stretch that will include 21 practices and an unprecedented two-game spring schedule. They’ll have three weeks of a typical spring practice and then two weeks of game preparation as they host Central Washington April 10 and Portland State April 17 to start getting them ready for a fall season chasing the FCS title.
As things keep returning closer to normal, the emergence of the Griz from hibernation reintroduces questions about the team. Some of those went unanswered from last year.
Others have popped up since things shut down because of the pandemic, during which time the Big Sky decided to not play in the fall, citing the cost of NCAA-required COVID testing as the tipping point. UM later opted out of the league’s spring season because of safety issues practicing and playing outdoors in the Montana winter and the physical toll of six games plus playoffs followed by a full fall season.
“Hindsight’s easy, you know, we should have played in the fall, but that wasn’t what we thought at the time as a conference. So, that’s the way it goes,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said Friday before the team's first practice. “But no, this feels real normal. It’s what we do this time of year. We did get some great practices and some great scrimmaging and great work done in the fall even though it wasn’t in front of a crowd against another opponent. So, this just feels normal as heck.”
Here are 11 questions to consider about Grizzly football this spring.
Who takes over at quarterback?
Replacing Dalton Sneed is a big task, and the Griz have plenty of options in their QB room.
Senior Cam Humphrey is the most experienced of the group. He started in place of an injured Sneed for three games in 2019 and has been the backup for two seasons.
Humphrey may have been the favorite to win the job last spring, but now other quarterbacks have had more time to learn the offense and become more mature to handle the physical rigors.
Kris Brown is the next-most-experienced QB in the system despite being a redshirt freshman. The Bozeman native is the tallest at 6-foot-4 and has shown he can throw a pretty ball after coming in as a first-team all-stater.
Sophomore Robbie Patterson transferred from junior college ahead of last year’s spring camp, and junior Kirk Rygol came to the program from South Florida in May. True freshman Carson Rostad has been in the program since the fall, and Daniel Britt signed in December.
In making a decision, the Griz will either be going with a one-year option in Humphrey and then find a new starter in 2022, or they could go all-in for a multi-year starter. Naming a backup would be important in case of injury, but players across college football, especially quarterbacks, have entered the transfer portal if they aren’t named a starter, and there's only one QB position.
Two spring games should give Hauck and Co. a much better look after fall practices and spring camp.
“There’s a lot (of people) in coaching that think playing an actual game at the end of spring ball would be a good deal and have thought that for a long time,” Hauck said. “The NCAA’s never gone that direction. But I think it’s a great deal. It’ll be productive.”
How does Montana replace Samori Toure?
Record-breaking receiver Samori Toure transferred to Nebraska of the Big Ten in November for his final season of eligibility after the Big Sky opted out of playing in fall 2020. Having to replace him comes on top of the graduation of all-time leading pass catcher Jerry Louie-McGee and tight end Colin Bingham.
Senior Sammy Akem should be the unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver as a two-time-All-Big Sky selection. He’s had ample time to recover since his 2019 season was cut short by injury.
Mitch Roberts showed improvement as 2019 progressed when he was asked to step up. Gabe Sulser showed he could pop in 2018 but missed most of 2019 with an undisclosed injury. Malik Flowers has been a standout kick returner but has had limited offensive playing time.
Redshirt freshman Keelan White stood out in videos from fall 2020 practice and was the true freshman breakout of 2019 fall camp as he flashed solid hands and deft footwork along the sideline. Bozeman native Ryan Simpson and tight end Cole Grossman could be in line to possibly make an impact.
Wide receiver should still be a deep position and one battle worth watching, but Hauck isn't keying in on any one specific position battle.
“I’d say pretty much across the board, because if you’re working and you’re working hard and correctly, your players develop, in particular your young guys," Hauck said. "So, it’ll be interesting to see which veteran players can keep the young guys from beating them out.”
Which cornerbacks step up?
Montana should have some actual cornerbacks competing for starting spots this year after playing with receivers-turned-CBs the past two seasons.
TraJon Cotton and Omar Hicks Onu both transferred to UM from Oregon State and got to participate in 2020 spring camp. Cotton, a sophomore, missed 2019 with an injury but played in two games in 2018. Hicks Onu, a senior, played in 12 games in 2016 on special teams, 12 games in 2017 on defense and six games in 2019 on defense after missing 2018 with an injury.
Sophomore Corbin Walker was often the first option off the bench in 2019, collecting 11 tackles and a pick-6 as a true freshman.
Other potential competitors could be transfers Justin Ford and Hunter Allen. Ford came from Louisville, where he redshirted with an injury, and Allen came from junior college.
“We always compete. Every day’s a competition here. The depth changes,” Hauck said about the team in general. “Any time we’re in spring ball or training camp, the depth’s going to change every day. That’s why we don’t produce a depth chart because it doesn’t make any sense. You’re as good as your last practice. Competition makes everybody better.”
How much has the O-line grown?
The offensive line was a major weakness when Hauck was hired, but development over time and the addition of transfers is helping Montana shore up that position. Could they now fulfill the Dominant Offensive Line Attitude (DOLA) for which they’ve been striving?
Back for UM are All-Big Sky second-team left tackle Conlan Beaver, a two-year starter, and one-year starters in right guard Moses Mallory and right tackle Dylan Cook. Tackle Colton Keintz had starting experience in 2018, and guard Kordell Pillans appeared in 11 games in 2019.
The Griz have added center AJ Forbes, a transfer from Nebraska. And expect Skyler Martin and Tyler Ganoung to be in competition as the OL works to provide quarterback protection and running lanes.
The addition of new strength and conditioning coach Dan Ryan could potentially make an impact on the offensive line if he can beef up them and the tall, lean players UM brings into its OL room. Small changes may be seen in the spring, but that could be even bigger by the fall when Ryan has had more than two months with the players.
“I think that’s been a positive development,” Hauck said of Ryan’s addition. “We’ve kind of made a turn in how we do things down there. We had three max days earlier this week, and the guys were throwing around some good weight.”
How does UM replace LB Dante Olson?
Replacing Dante Olson, the 2019 Buck Buchanan Award winner and school's record-setting tackler, with one person is a nearly impossible task.
The Griz bring back Jace Lewis, the 2020 Big Sky preseason defensive MVP. Division II transfer Patrick O’Connell excelled with a non-stop motor in his first year playing at UM in 2019. Junior Marcus Welnel was the first player off the bench that season.
Senior safety Gavin Crow is listed as a linebacker after being a safety who suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2019 season. Sophomore Levi Janacaro switched to linebacker last spring after being a backup running back.
Sophomore Braxton Hill was primarily a special teams contributor who’s since been put on full scholarship. Redshirt freshman Kale Edwards was the 2019 defensive scout team player of the year.
“When Montana’s good, we have returning players that we can count on and we don’t rebuild, we reload year in, year out,” Hauck said, and although he didn’t say it about a specific position, UM has become known as Linebacker-U in the FCS. “I hope that’s where we’re going, but those are just words until we do it.”
How does Montana fill special teams holes?
Special teams play is a specialty for Hauck-coached teams, and the Griz have a multitude of positions to fill in that phase of the game.
The biggest departure is punt returner Louie-McGee, who tied the school record with three punt return touchdowns. The Griz need to replace Adam Wilson, who handled kickoffs and punts. Also gone is Brandon Purdy, the school’s all-time most-accurate field goal kicker.
Punter returner Malik Flowers is back — if he stays in the role. But holding down the fort will be All-American long snapper Matthew O'Donoghue.
Junior kicker/punter Jack Cooper is a JUCO transfer who began college at Ole Miss. Redshirt freshmen Carver Gilman and Brian Buschini are options, the latter being the backup for punts and kickoffs in 2019. December signee Camden Capser is 16th all-time in the country for most consecutive extra points at the high school level.
With the big impact special teams players can make in limited time in a game, the right mentality is a key. And Hauck likes the mentality he’s seen throughout his team this past year.
“I think that mental toughness shows itself in different ways, and I think their ability to bring focus and good attitude and effort when they aren’t sure what’s in front of them, or at least in what time frame, has been really positive,” Hauck said.
How far along have UM’s pass rushers come?
Montana’s struggles at cornerback stemmed in part from a lack of pressure from the defensive front. They’re intertwined because a better pass rush would limit quality passing opportunities and better coverage would give the rushers more time to wreak havoc.
Montana primarily played with two linebackers in Hauck’s first year back in 2018. The Griz went with more three-linebacker sets in 2019, so it’ll be interesting to see how they approach things.
They’ve used a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position the previous two seasons. Among that position and true D-linemen, O’Connell had the most success getting TFLs and sacks in 2019. The Griz should be looking for increased production from NC State transfer Joe Babros in his second year, the continued emergence of Jacob McGourin, who’s still only a redshirt freshman and the addition of Arizona grad transfer Justin Belknap.
“We’ve got people that are young on the depth chart by class because of the eligibility pause and all that. But it’s more about game experience at this point,” Hauck said. “Certainly we’ve got a couple positions where you have seniors going out the door, so you don’t have as much game experience at linebacker, some of the defensive line spots, I don’t know, quarterback. But that’ll all come. … Those guys have to step up, and I like our team.”
How does Marcus Knight elevate his game?
Now a junior, Knight broke onto the scene as a running back in 2019 as he was named the Big Sky newcomer of the year. The junior college transfer set single-season UM records for most rushing touchdowns (23), total TDs (25) and points scored (150).
Knight regularly came up big at the ends of drives while just eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards. Can he now help carry the offense down the field more often? He could have that durability in his 6-1 frame as he’s bulked up from 194 pounds to 218 since last playing a game.
The ground game could be even more key with helping a new quarterback settle into the system. Sophomore Nick Ostmo is back after being option No. 2 in 2019, and Xavier Harris made big plays on highlights from fall practice. Kalispell native Drew Turner will be looking to make his mark.
How does Garrett Graves fit into the plan?
One rampant question since Eureka native Garrett Graves signed with Montana is the position he’ll be playing. The 6-3, 202-pound redshirt sophomore is listed as a safety for the second spring camp in a row.
Graves was recruited as a quarterback but has played running back, wide receiver and special teams in limited roles at UM, showing an ability to locate and obliterate the ball carrier on special teams. He played every position on defensive except tackle for Eureka during its back-to-back state titles.
Who wears jersey No. 37 for Montana?
Townsend native Jace Lewis is the obvious front runner to wear the legacy jersey after it was last worn by Stevensville’s Jesse Sims in 2018 and 2019. The 6-1, 238-pound senior linebacker was a first-team All-Big Sky selection in his first season starting in 2019.
The No. 37 jersey is passed from one Montana native to another since Plentywood fullback Kraig Paulson started the tradition after playing at UM from 1983-86. He passed it to Big Timber safety Tim Hauck in 1987, and the jersey has stayed on the defensive side of the ball since then.
How many fans will be allowed into games?
Montana’s home stadium is one of the most special atmospheres in the FCS thanks to a raucous crowd. But will the usual 25,000-plus be allowed in for the two spring games? Or will that come in the fall? It’s up to the Missoula City-County Health Department, as is the question of if the games will be played.
The fact that it’s an outdoor game should be a sign of optimism for fan attendance, as is the fact that the Montana women’s soccer team played at Missoula County Stadium last weekend with 300 fans allowed into the game. Even without a full crowd, football games returning to Missoula would be another step toward a return to normalcy.
“It was challenging because the length of it,” Hauck said of the past year. “There’s always a carrot at the end. We’re preparing to compete for a championship, and then all of a sudden, that gets blown up and we don’t know when that’s going to happen again.
“Again, I’ll always credit our assistant coaches and our players for being able to continue to work hard when they didn’t know when the next competition was going to be. So, I’ve got a lot of admiration for the guys in the program.”