MISSOULA — For the first time since April, Montana held an official football practice Tuesday at the foot of Mount Sentinel.
And for the first time in a long time, the Griz came into that practice as an unheralded bunch.
Over the past 10 seasons, the lowest Montana has been ranked in the Big Sky Conference preseason poll was third. Entering the 2017 season, Montana is tabbed to finish sixth.
On the national scene, Montana was left out of the preseason STATS FCS Top 25 for the first time since 1991 — at least three years before every player on the roster was born.
“I think it’s a little bit of a blue-collar approach,” Montana head coach Bob Stitt said ahead of the first preseason practice. “Our guys are really, really focused on that. It’s kinda nice to fly under the radar a little bit. We know what we have here as far as a team and we’re excited about that. For our guys to be able to fly under the radar and surprise a few people early, that’s a good thing.”
Getting back to winning requires a lot of pieces to come together.
“You gotta really look at each day, each play, all those little things because people try to say ‘Hey, we gotta win,’ ” Stitt said. “Well, you gotta put together all those little things and it’s the process of getting there.”
The players have the same mindset as Stitt as far as the preseason rankings.
“If we win games, we’ll be right back up there in the top 10 like we always are,” redshirt-senior quarterback Reese Phillips said. “Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I’m kind of glad we aren’t. That’s what’s nice about this team. We don’t have anyone who’s a star or who’s big like that. Our best players are so humble and it’s a different feeling this year.”
Aside from the preseason rankings, Phillips has a lot more on his mind. He’s in the middle of a position battle at quarterback in which he currently has the upper hand.
The Kentucky transfer had a solid spring, minus a lackluster spring game he’d rather forget. He spent his summer familiarizing himself with the offense and the playbook.
“I’m just getting more comfortable being the guy getting all the reps,” Phillips said. “It’s not something I’ve ever done. Spring, that was new for me. Now in the fall, I’m a little more comfortable with it. I’m much more confident now as far as getting all the reps and getting those important reps.”
Even though only the first day of practice is under Phillips’ belt, he’s confident in his abilities to move forward.
“I always thought when I’d be in this position that I would be really nervous,” Phillips said. “But this team that we have has made me not nervous at all.
“I feel like if we had to play tomorrow, I’d be ready to go, just because I’ve waited a long time to do this. This team is awesome. For me, it’s just getting through camp and getting better every day. I don’t have to worry about anything else. I have to worry about myself.”
Stitt is confident in Phillips, too.
“He’s just been with the team longer than the other guys and I think as a quarterback, that means a lot when you’ve been with the team,” Stitt said. “They trust you. They’ll play hard for you. The other guys have the ability to do that, they just haven’t been with the team as much. Reese has played in big games. He’s been on the big stage in the SEC. He’s played in games here. He’s got the upper hand there.”
But the job isn’t locked up by any means.
Junior quarterback Caleb Hill is ready to compete for the job too. And after having a successful and eye-opening spring game, he’s looking forward to continue his momentum into the preseason.
Hill comes to Montana from Blinn — a junior college in Brenham, Texas. Even though it’s a junior college, Blinn’s a force to be reckoned with. Hill finished his time as a Buccaneer with 872 yards passing with a completion percentage of 53.2 percent. In one game alone last season, a Hill-led offense shut out Texas A&T 55-0.
“Playing at Blinn Junior College, I played against Alabama guys, UT guys, Texas A&M, I mean, I played against guys that are big time guys now and there are some of them that are already in the NFL,” Hill said. “That's helped me a lot here and really has developed me into the kind of quarterback that I am today."
He’s spent the summer — like Phillips — getting into the playbook. Hill said he spent the entire summer hanging out with his teammates at every player run practice working on knowing the plays.
“I’m a competitor,” Hill said. “Me, Reese and Gresch (Jensen), we all came here to compete and try to win the job. It would be weird if we didn’t do that. For me, I can’t worry about anything else other than the controllables that I can control and my attitude on the field in how I lead and doing the right things off the field. If I can do those things, go play 110 percent, then I can have my head held high no matter who gets the job.”
CONNOR STRAHM: At practice, Stitt briefly addressed the situation surrounding redshirt-senior linebacker Connor Strahm and his misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence.
"Connor's a member of our football team, (and) there's definitely going to be consequences with his actions,” Stitt said. “That was the first adversity that we faced of the year. We weren't planning on that and we don't expect any more. We're gonna rally around him and he's gonna have some consequences and the team's really gonna support him."
On the morning of July 15, Strahm was pulled over on Broadway for driving with his headlights off and had a blood alcohol level of .214 percent — three times the legal limit.
The Montana Athletics student athlete code of conduct outlines that charges of misdemeanor DUIs carry a “minimum suspension of 10 percent of scheduled contests.” For a Griz football player, that equates to a 1.1 game suspension.
FIRE PROTOCOL: With fires blazing in nearly every direction around Missoula, the air quality at the start of practice was in the moderate range, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The recommendation from the DEQ for moderate is “unusually sensitive people should consider limiting prolonged outdoor exertion.”
Stitt isn’t overly worried about the air quality at the time being, saying, “It hurts my morning jog and it hurts my chest a little but our guys will be all right.”
The official university policy on air quality recommends cancellations only if conditions become hazardous, where pollutants rise to 300 µg/m3 and visibility drops to 1¼ miles or less.