MISSOULA — Montana offensive linemen Conlan Beaver and AJ Forbes approached quarterback Cam Humphrey to go over a mistake on their final drive of practice Tuesday at Dornblaser Field.
“That was my fault,” Beaver admitted. “Did you have a lot of pressure up your face where you couldn’t step up?”
“It felt like I was really compacted. I was trying to get the ball out like that,” Humphrey said, imitating a sidearm pass. “We’ll see on film, but I was able to get it out. We can always be better.”
“We got to be better,” Beaver responded.
“Good sh*t, dude. Better than yesterday,” Humphrey said before Beaver headed for the bus heading back to campus.
That simple exchange showed the growing bond between the offensive line and the quarterback who is in the lead to earn the starting job. A senior like Beaver isn’t afraid to admit a mistake on his part, and Humphrey, also a senior, isn’t looking to excoriate his lineman about the miscue, instead looking forward about how to fix things.
Growth is the most apt word to describe the offensive line, which was arguably the weakest position group when coach Bobby Hauck took over ahead of the 2018 season but now has its most veteran presence. Personal bonds built through experience is one measure of their growth, but they’ve also had to develop their depth, strength and stature, technique and scheme, and trust among their teammates.
If Montana is going to fulfill its potential, the play of the offensive line is going to be a key component for the team that comes into the year ranked ninth in FCS preseason Top 25.
“I think we could be one of, if not the best, O-lines in the country,” Forbes said minutes after the conversation between Humphrey and Beaver. “This past summer and winter, we’ve made it a focus to become the best O-line in the country.”
Depth and development
When Montana kicked off the second rendition of the Bobby Hauck era in 2018, they scored a home win against Northern Iowa while playing with just three true offensive linemen.
Now, the Griz have developed the most depth they’ve had in four years under Hauck, creating more competition, which can foster growth. They have seven players who’ve started games on the line along with other up-and-comers, giving them possibilities to mix and match players to create their best starting five and roll in subs throughout a game.
“You got to compete every day for your spot,” Beaver said. “No one’s spot is safe.”
Beaver, a 2020 preseason All-American, is the lone regular starter on the offensive line who’s spent his whole career at UM. He came from Virginia on a 20% scholarship and earned a full ride by his third season.
The Griz have primarily gone the transfer route to find starters. Right tackle Dylan Cook is a former NAIA quarterback, right guard Moses Mallory came from junior college, center AJ Forbes transferred from Nebraska and left guard Kordell Pillans came from junior college. They also recently added backup right guard Hunter Mayginnes from Washington State.
“Offensive linemen are hard to find,” Hauck said. “So, if you can get one, you better get him. It doesn’t matter how old he is.”
The uniqueness of the transfers make it important for the linemen to quickly develop comfort with one another. Beavers felt that’s come along well.
“Some of us have been together two years, but it feels like six years because we go through the toughest times together,” he said. “The guy next to you is going through the same shit. It’s a bond that you can’t break. It’s going to carry us.”
The plug-and-play nature of the transfers allows UM to develop younger players. That includes homegrown players like Tyler Ganoung, who’s splits first-team reps at left guard with Pillans this fall, Skyler Martin, who started at left guard in both spring games and is working as the backup center, and Colton Keintz, who was thrown into the fire to start as a young player.
“We’re kind of stabilized there, and we can develop players through their careers rather than throwing them in where they shouldn’t be,” Hauck said.
For that depth to be there, Beaver, Cook, Mallory and Pillans all needed to decide to return for the extra year the NCAA granted because of the pandemic. It was an easy decision for Mallory.
“My senior year was stolen from me, not by anyone, but by unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “I was given an opportunity to come back, and I gladly chose to come back. I love the game of football, and I love my teammates. I feel like we have something great coming.”
Strength and stature
When Beaver came to UM in 2016, he was all of 220 pounds, a measly weight for a lineman.
He’s built himself up to 315 with as much good weight as possible to anchor the left tackle spot blocking the quarterback’s blind side. His makeover has personified the transformation of the group, Hauck feels, as they’ve developed the stature and strength to play at a high level.
“His first couple seasons, he was just a weak guy that was scrapping, trying to get by and now he’s got strength and confidence,” Hauck said. “He’ll have his best year as a collegiate this fall.”
While Beaver has gained weight, Mallory needed to do the opposite. He came into 2019 fall camp at 370 pounds and has slimmed down to 332.
Mallory, who warms up with a 405-pound bench press, feels “10 times better” than when he got to campus. He’s noticed that help him on the field.
“In order to know the game and understanding what you’re doing, you need to be in shape to have a clear mind,” he said. “It goes hand in hand. The better shape you are in, the better aware you are and aware of what your assignment is and your execution.”
Hauck feels some of their biggest strength gains have come in the last 10 months. The Griz turned their focus to weight room when the 2020 fall season was postponed and have been working with new strength and conditioning coach Dan Ryan since he was hired in December.
One of Cook’s first thoughts last fall was getting back in the weight room to prepare for this season. The O-line now has an average weight of 315 pounds among the seven players who’ve started, with the lightest checking in at 302; the five starters in the 2018 season opener averaged 297.
“We didn’t even really think twice about returning,” said Cook, who's gone through the unusual transformation of NAIA quarterback to Division I offensive lineman.
“Season’s canceled and first thing we said is what’s next, when are we practicing, when are we going to start lifting, when are we going to get preparing for the next season. We knew what we were going to do last year, we didn’t get to do it. There was no question from any of us seniors, we’re in this, let’s do it.”
As the line can play with more strength and speed, Forbes sees good things in the future. He plays with such ferocity that Beaver described him as “an animal” who’s “as tough as they get.”
“We all have that mentality that the guy across from us is going to get taken for a ride whenever they go up against us,” Forbes said.
“I just want them to remember who we are,” Mallory added.
Technique and scheme
Things looked good on the surface when Mallory laid out a linebacker during a play in camp.
Yet, his footwork was off, so his block didn’t matter to O-line coach Chad Germer when they reviewed film. Germer made it known that the footwork had to be improved because proper technique is at the forefront of success.
“Coach Germer, he doesn’t care who you are, he doesn’t care if you’re starting, if you’re second team, he doesn’t give a shit where you’re at on the depth chart, he expects perfectness and greatness,” Beaver said.
Germer, a 1991 All-American center for the Griz, is in his 24th season coaching offensive linemen. He’s spent 11 seasons coaching at the FBS level and in his 13th season overall at UM.
Hauck has trust in him to develop the offensive line. He brought him to UM in 2009, took him to UNLV with him from 2010-14 and kept him on staff with the Griz when he returned to Missoula ahead of the 2018 season.
“He’s just a very detailed technician, and he’s going to demand technique,” Hauck said. “It’s a technique position, and he just does a great job with those guys reinforcing their technique to them on a daily basis. They have a great understanding where their feet and hands (should be) and what the play’s trying to do.”
Forbes, a film junkie who scrutinizes himself, has taken on vocal leadership role on the O-line despite being a sophomore on a line full of upperclassmen. Hauck said he’s “a natural leader,” and Forbes sees it as his job to make sure line in energized, dialed in and moving as one unit because a play can die if even one of the five linemen doesn’t execute their assignment.
“It’s definitely a hard-hat mentality here,” Forbes said. “It’s tough, but it brings us together. It’s also a bunker mentality, meaning we’re all going through this adversity together.”
In 2018, the inexperience of the offensive line was offset at times by dual-threat quarterback Dalton Sneed and his ability to escape the pocket. That group struggled in short-yardage situations, converting just 44.4% (24 of 54) of third- and fourth-down plays with 1 or 2 yards to go, or plays within 2 yards of the end zone, excluding penalties and QB kneels.
In 2019 and spring 2021, that number jumped to 76.9% (60 of 78). The more veteran group will now look to provide that pass protection for Humphrey, who can scramble when needed but has shown himself to be more of a pocket passer than Sneed.
The line held up well enough in the spring games that Humphrey and the backups weren’t sacked even once in 120 minutes. Cook hopes that experience from those games allowed the line to gel and can be used a springboard for success this fall.
“I think it helped us a lot on a confidence level,” he said. “We know what we’re capable of now. We’re a championship-caliber team. Our potential is through the roof. We don’t really have a ceiling.”
Trust among teammates
The O-line may have hit a low when it allowed penetration that led to a fumble on the 1-yard line in the closing seconds of the 2018 Brawl of the Wild.
Beaver, who was playing on the line, knows the offensive line is the foundation for the rest of the offense running smoothly.
“We just need to keep running power, get a push on the line to give the running backs tons of yards and make it easy for them,” he said. “When we get into pass pro, we got to pro it up and give Cam all the time in the world. That’s the goal.”
To do that, they have to trust one another and be truthful with each other before other position groups can trust them.
“We’re not afraid to tell each other when we’re doing something wrong or we’re not afraid to also bring each other up, tell them when they’re doing something good,” Mallory said.
The improving line play is noticed by the skills players on the team because it helps make their jobs easier. For running back Nick Ostmo, the veteran group helps him by pointing out blitzes they see in pre-snap reads and creating bigger running lanes.
“It just helps me feel pretty comfortable being in the backfield with them up front,” he said. “It’s like I know they’re going to protect me and make holes for me. It’s a pretty good feeling with those guys being in front. Even the guys behind our starters are competing for spots. Everybody they put up there, I’m pretty comfortable with them and I trust them.”
Better line play in pass protection also aids the wide receivers by giving them more time to run their routes and get open. Senior Sammy Akem has noticed that.
“Everybody knows everything starts up front,” he said. “When they’re firing on all cylinders, we’re firing on all cylinders. When they’re going crazy, it just fires up everybody.”
That extends to the quarterback group. They work hand in hand to review what they’re seeing in order to make the best possible adjustments.
Humphrey has noticed that cohesion more and more as they’ve had more experience working together, just like when Beaver and Forbes approached him earlier this week.
“It’s kind of the mentality switch that we needed,” Humphrey said. “It’s just the mentality that these guys have to come out here every single day and kick some butt. It’s really cool to see and awesome to watch them work.”