MISSOULA — Montana begins its third spring camp under head coach Bobby Hauck having to replace arguably its best player on offense, defense and special teams following the graduation of Dalton Sneed, Dante Olson and Jerry Louie-McGee.
The Griz kick off the 15-practice spring camp on Monday after undergoing winter conditioning following a breakout season in year two under Hauck in which they advanced to the FCS quarterfinals.
There are dozens of questions to be answered as the Griz try to reclaim the national acclaim they routinely garnered in Hauck’s tenure at UM from 2003-09, but here are five storylines to follow during spring camp leading up to the spring game April 10 in Hamilton.
Who wins the starting QB job?
This will be the overarching storyline until Hauck names a starter. Senior Cam Humphrey is the lone quarterback on the roster who has playing experience at UM, starting three games this past season in place of an injured Sneed. More of a passer than a runner, he’s come off the bench in garbage time and played in 17 games.
The Griz have two other quarterbacks on their roster. Dual-threat sophomore Robbie Patterson transferred from Saddleback Community College but is coming off a torn PCL and meniscus in his left knee that sidelined him in 2019. Redshirt freshman Kris Brown hasn’t played but looked impressive with his release as a player straight out of high school during fall camp.
Who takes over at cornerback?
The Griz need to replace both cornerbacks following the graduation of Justin Calhoun and transfer of Dareon Nash to Idaho. They brought in senior Omar Hicks Onu and junior TraJon Cotton to compete at cornerback after playing safety at Oregon State. Hicks Onu made three starts in 2019, and Cotton missed the season with an injury.
Montana has only one other cornerback on its roster who has game experience. Sophomore Corbin Walker had 11 tackles and one pick-6 as a true freshman in 2019. The other cornerbacks currently on the roster are senior Mykal Tolliver, redshirt freshman Trevin Gradney and redshirt freshman Elias DeWaters, a converted running back.
How does the defense adapt without Dante Olson?
Olson covered up mistakes by the defense with his ability to track down the ball carrier, setting the school tackles record in just two seasons as a starter. Replacing the 2019 Buck Buchanan Award winner with just one player is a tall task. Montana appeared to go with more three-linebacker sets instead of just two as the season progressed and could be an option again.
Fortunately, Montana is developing depth at LB. First-team all-Big Sky senior Jace Lewis returns after tallying 131 tackles, the third most in a single season in UM history, in his first year as a starter. Div. II transfer Patrick O’Connell broke out as a disruptive force with his motor in his first year. Junior Marcus Welnel was the first LB off the bench, sophomore Braxton Hill was a special teams contributor and redshirt freshman Kale Edwards was the defensive scout team player of the year.
How does Montana shuffle its O-line?
UM graduated two starting linemen in center Cy Sirmon and left guard Angel Villanueva, who were on the all-Big Sky second and third team, respectively. The Griz return three starters in left tackle Conlan Beaver, right guard Moses Mallory and right tackle Dylan Cook. Beaver is a two-year starter who made the All-Big Sky second team in 2019. Mallory and Cook are coming off their first season starting.
Mallory played both guard and center prior to UM, so could he possibly slide over to center? Among other returners with experience, tackle Colton Keintz started in 2018 and shared playing time with Cook in 2019 before the latter took over. Senior guard Kordell Pillans played in 11 games in his first year coming over from junior college. Montana has four seniors, three juniors, five sophomores and three redshirt freshmen linemen working to restore the DOLA mantra.
Where does Garrett Graves land?
The ultra-versatile Graves was recruited as a quarterback but has played running back, wide receiver and special teams so far. Hauck said on National Signing Day that Graves would be moved to defense during spring camp. It’ll be interesting to see if the 6-foot-3, 202-pound sophomore stays there, and if so, where he plays as he tries to find the field consistently.
Graves played every position on defense except tackle for the back-to-back state champions at Eureka. With the Griz, he showed his ability to locate the ball carrier and blow him up on special teams coverage in 2019. Safety, linebacker or Montana’s hybrid safety/linebacker position the now-graduated Josh Sandry played in 2019 could make sense based on Graves’ build.