MISSOULA — Football pads aren't smacking together just yet, but football is finally back in Missoula as preseason practices kicked off Wednesday for the Montana Grizzlies.
One big change from recent years is that the Grizzlies are practicing at Dornblaser instead of in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Fifth-year senior linebacker Josh Buss said Montana hadn't practiced at Dornblaser since he's been a part of the team. He said he's a fan of it.
Dornblaser was one of head coach Bobby Hauck's preferred practice venues when he was at Montana last time. That remains true nearly 10 years later.
"I think grass is safer. I know the turf is consistent and is a great playing surface, especially later in the year, but I think the grass is safer," Hauck said before Montana's first practice began Wednesday. "That's why we're out here. There's a lot of space. It's just good. A change of venue's good. We have to be able to play on whatever surface we're asked to play on."
Montana originally scheduled seven of its 14 spring practices at the grass fields at the River Bowl, but the rainy weather didn't cooperate.
In terms of depth, Hauck said not much has changed from the spring.
"We know we're short handed on the offensive line. We know we're short at linebacker and we know we're short in the secondary," Hauck said. "It's time to step up."
After practice, both offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach and defensive coordinator Kent Baer said the first day was a little rusty.
"They get tired quickly. We need to get their game legs under them. It takes a little bit of time to get in playing shape," Baer said. "They've been running, they've been working out, but it's not football shape. It's just going to take some time."
Rosenbach added: "It's going to be a little off here and there. I think you hit the ground running. They've been working all summer. They're pretty familiar with what each other's doing. There's going to be some give and take. There certainly was today, but I'm happy with how the first day went."
Quarterback Dalton Sneed — who's now sporting a full beard — agreed with their assessments.
"It was a little rough, but we expected that," Sneed said.
Montana has 15 more practices before game week preparation for Northern Iowa begins.
Between then and now, Baer's main expectation for the defense is hard-nosed play and eliminating mistakes.
"If we work on those things on a day to day basis and we'll get to where we need to be," Baer said. "... There's a lot of learning involved. It's a step by step process. You can't get to the top of the ladder until you take the first step."
Justin Calhoun position switch
Redshirt junior receiver Justin Calhoun didn't line up on offense on Wednesday. He's shifted over to defense and is playing cornerback while still wearing his No. 3 jersey.
Baer said it's a permanent switch as of right now.
"We're creating competition. That's what we're trying to do in that situation," Rosenbach said. "I think he's going to be in a situation where he'll be, hopefully, working a little bit on both sides.
"He's a great athlete. This shows how good of team guy he is too. It's awesome."
Calhoun started in 10 of Montana's 11 games last season and has 20 career starts at wideout. He was Montana's third-best receiver in terms of receptions last year, hauling in 32 catches for 505 yards and four receiving touchdowns. He averaged 15.8 yards per reception as a redshirt sophomore.
'He's going to make a big impact:' Gabe Sulser
Before the first day of practice started, Hauck was high on true freshman receiver Gabe Sulser. When asked who stood out, Sulser was the first name that came to mind of the newcomers.
"I'm real anxious to see how far along Gabe Sulser is just because he's the Montana Gatorade Player of the Year," Hauck said. "He's a local guy and I'm certainly anxious to see him."
Rosenbach added: "He's good. He's a very smart guy. He'll pick up what we do pretty fast. He's got a lot of physical tools. I think that helps him get in the mix early. I'm looking forward to watching him improve over the course of the next couple weeks."
Sulser, donning the same No. 7 he wore for the Billings Senior Broncs, hauled in several good catches on Wednesday.
Junior quarterback Dalton Sneed took notice.
"I saw him working. Hard. He's really vying to get into that starting lineup and that starting rotation," Sneed said of Sulser after practice. "He's out there busting his tail and running around. Another thing, he's real hungry to learn. He's always looking at coaches, asking questions. That's what you want to see from the younger guys.
"His attention to detail is second-to-none and that's what Coach Hauck preaches every day. That's what you want from a winner. It's the difference between one inch and three inches and he understands that early. I think he's going to make a big impact and hopefully he excels a lot this fall camp."
Hauck said no conversation has been had about redshirting any freshmen, let alone Sulser.
"Right now we don't have any thought on that," Hauck said of potential redshirts. "None of them are redshirting at this point. They get a chance to compete like everybody else. Obviously they start behind. It's just their situation with the other guys haven't had spring ball and such. But nobody's redshirting at this point."
On Josh Buss
Buss may still be wearing his blue jersey, but he still made his presence known at practice. Buss runs the defensive sideline during practice.
His status for the season is still up in the air.
"He's got some injury problems," Hauck said. "That's going to be in flux. You can ask him that question every day for a long time."
Hauck said he isn't particularly optimistic either, "But I don't know. I'm not a doctor. We'll see."
Baer was more positive about the future prognosis of his senior star.
"We're not going to lose him. We're going to make sure we can get him in. He's going to be fine," Baer said. "He's just taking it step by step. He'll be there. He's got a job to do right now, but he'll get there."
Buss was made available to the media on Wednesday, but he didn't discuss his injury condition.
"Good. That's all I'll say. Feelin' good," Buss said, smiling.
In the weeks leading up to August practices, Buss earned a host of preseason accolades, including the Big Sky Conference preseason defensive player of the year, the STATS FCS preseason first-team, the Butkus Award watchlist and the Buchanan Award watchlist.
"It was really exciting," Buss said of all the accolades coming in. "It's a huge honor. I really, really appreciate it. I think how I've always been, it's more team effort. It shows what the team has done over the years. It's not anything special I'm doing. All 11 guys are doing their jobs. I think it's a big honor for the whole team more than myself. That's the way I look at it."