MISSOULA — Perhaps no football player in the state is more eager to take the field again than Montana running back Adam Eastwood.
The redshirt sophomore had an unceremonious end to his first season in Missoula, fumbling on the goal line in the regular-season finale against rival Montana State with a potential playoff spot on the line.
Eastwood, the Grizzlies’ starting running back, felt he was harder on himself about that than anyone else could be. When spring camp rolled around, he said he had mixed emotions about being back on the same field.
Nine months since playing in that game, Eastwood and the Griz are closing in on their season opener, an Aug. 31 road date with South Dakota. The feeling of returning to action is one of joy for the forward-looking Eastwood as time starts to heal wounds.
“Excited,” Eastwood said, using that word six times during a five-minute interview after the 10th practice of fall camp on Friday.
“First game, everyone’s going to be nervous. But after the first hit, it’s just like another day of practice. You’re on the same size field. You’ve got the same rules. It’s just another game of football.”
Eastwood heads into this season having moved on from the play that could potentially crush the confidence of a first-year player. He doesn’t look back on it anymore, instead focusing on this season and how he can improve.
The goal is to prove he’s someone in which the team can have faith that he’ll carry through on making the right play.
“Just prove to my teammates and prove to myself and my coaches that I’m the player they think I am,” he said.
As for the type of player he thinks he is, he said: “Just an every-down back. Someone who can be reliable and counted on.”
The positive attitude is something Montana coach Bobby Hauck has noticed as a constant for Eastwood, who played at San Diego State when Hauck was there.
“His attitude’s always been good. It’s been no change,” Hauck said when asked about Eastwood's attitude since the fumble. “No fun to put the ball on the ground, in particular in the rivalry game. Certainly, he had some help on that play from both our front and their front, but he’s also had some help in recovery from that with the guys in our locker room. I don’t think there’s any lasting residual effect of that at all.”
Coming into this season, Eastwood is the only proven running back at the Division I level on the Grizzlies’ roster. After transferring in, he rushed for 514 yards and nine touchdowns, second and first on the team, while playing in all 11 games and starting seven. The rest of the returning running backs and fullbacks had eight carries for 29 yards.
Eastwood and junior college transfer Marcus Knight, who joined the team in the spring, have continued to split first-team reps throughout fall camp. This year, he comes in feeling closer to 100% and has used fall camp as a chance to improve his confidence level.
“I definitely feel a lot healthier than I did this time last year and a lot stronger,” Eastwood said. “Just overall more confident in myself. Confidence is a big part of everyone’s game. If you’re confident in yourself, the sky’s the limit.”
Eastwood’s focus since last season has been on making quicker reads, staying on his feet and ball security. He put in work on his agility and burst by doing lateral work and short-speed work with the team and by himself.
Eastwood’s improved quickness and comfort in the system are things Hauck has noticed.
“He’s bigger and stronger, first off,” Hauck said. “Probably faster. We don’t time them, so there’s no way really to gauge that, but he looks that way. And then he's just seeing things better, understands the scheme.”
Eastwood has also been working to become a more complete running back by catching passes out of the backfield and being more effective with pass blocking.
“I thought I had it before, but the speed’s different, everything’s different, people are bigger,” Eastwood said. “It’s just stuff you can improve upon every day. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
Eastwood will have the chance to show off his work starting in two weeks when the Griz travel to Vermillion, South Dakota, to kick off their season.
“I’m just worried about the game coming up,” he said. “Just looking forward to the University of South Dakota and just focusing on them. Just excited to play the game of football again."
He added: “Fall camp is a bit of a grind, but we’re working towards that first game. Everyone’s excited to play the game. We want to get off to a great start.”
Knight and day
Knight spent the spring diving into the playbook after transferring from Citrus College, where he rushed for 912 yards and eight touchdowns.
Now through 10 practices at fall camp, the 6-foot-1, 194-pound sophomore has felt like he has a better grasp of the offense and what’s asked of him each day.
“I’m really glad that I came in the spring because our first four installations, I already know pretty much,” Knight said. “So, it’s really helped me a lot to have the foundation of what we do. It’s a lot smoother this time. I’m much more comfortable now than the spring. When you know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier.”
The focus for the speedy Knight has been learning to find and run through the correct hole, something that wasn’t required in junior college. As he’s gotten more film time, he feels he’s better able to know where his line is going and the tendencies of the defensive line and linebackers.
“It’s just making me a more complete football player with knowing the details,” Knight said.
Hauck has noticed that Knight has adapted well to the physical aspect of the Division I level.
“He looked good in the live drills in the spring,” Hauck said. “But this game’s bigger, more physical than the junior college (level), so I think the biggest thing is he’s handling the physical part of it, whether it’s protection or taking care of the football. As far as learning things, he’s a 4.0 GPA guy, he doesn’t have any problem learning anything.”
So what does Knight hope to add to the Griz when he gets a chance to play?
“Just be a guy who can do pretty much whatever,” he said. “Block, run, pass — I want to be able to do it all. Whatever they need me to do, be it a three- or four-down back, I want to be it all.”
Montana features four other players who’ve been practicing at running back in the fall: redshirt freshmen bruisers Drew Turner and Levi Janacaro, NAIA transfer Ryan Arntson and true freshman Nick Ostmo.
“I think we have great potential,” Knight said. “We have a lot of power, speed, kind of like everything. I think we’ll be a solid group.”
Ostmo was a player Hauck mentioned by name when asked about the group on Thursday. The Portland native who stands at 6-foot, 215 pounds even got some reps with the first-team offense on Friday.
“I think the older guys are probably ahead,” Hauck said. “But, you know, Nick Ostmo’s pushing there. So, we’ll see. Those guys, again, they’ll get to play live some on Saturday, so that’ll be an indicator on the young guys at least. We kind of know the older guys, we’ve seen them play a lot.”
Eastwood had a touchdown reception out of the backfield during 7-on-7 drills and an 88-yard touchdown run during 11-on-11 action. Turner had an 88-yard touchdown run against the second-team defense and Knight picked up a 40-yard gain in 11-on-11 work.
Senior linebacker Dante Olson picked off first-team quarterback Cam Humphrey and ran it back for a touchdown. Humphrey followed up with an 88-yard touchdown run on the next play.
Sophomore safety Gavin Crow picked off a pass in the end zone and ran it out for about 40 yards during 7-on-7 drills. Redshirt freshman safety Nash Fouch picked off Garrett Graves during an 11-on-11 scrimmage.
The Griz will hold a closed scrimmage Saturday, their 11th practice of fall camp.