HELENA — The Carroll College football team enters its spring practices Friday morning — depending on weather — with a new coach for the first time in more than two decades.
Troy Purcell was hired just after longtime hall of fame coach Mike Van Diest announced his retirement last November.
In Purcell’s introductory press conference, he explained how he can’t step into his predecessors’ shoes and has to paint his own path.
“I have to build on the success they had,” Purcell said of Van Diest and Bobby Petrino Sr. “They were unbelievable coaches.”
But with the Saints finishing with four consecutive losing seasons, most recently a 5-6 record, Purcell takes over a program that he knows needs to bring back its tradition of excellence.
Here are four questions heading into the start of spring practice:
1. What type of defense will Purcell put on the field after taking over for Van Diest?
There is no question that Van Diest had Carroll as one of, if not the, top defensive teams in the Frontier Conference.
Last season, the Saints finished as the conference’s leader scoring defense and total defense, holding opponents to just 19.9 points per game and 324.2 yards of total offense.
The Saints list only two of their top eight defensive players from last year’s squad in Chase Bowen and Nate McGree, so it will be interesting to see how the defense comes together.
Carroll did bring in an experienced defensive coordinator in Jared Petrino from Rocky Mountain College who knows the Frontier Conference well, so that might give them an edge.
2. Who will be the starting quarterback next season?
This is a question that won't be answered until fall, but it gives the three quarterbacks on the spring roster time to get well acquainted with Purcell and the offense he wants to run.
The Saints used three different quarterbacks this season, who seemed to change out every week after Reese Hiibel went down with an injury in the first game.
Kolby Killoy and Hunter Bledsoe split time over the next 10 games but both struggled, completing just 52 percent of their passes and throwing a combined 13 interceptions.
At his introductory press conference, Purcell said that his offense will be based off the strength of the starting quarterback.
“I’ve coached pro style-type quarterbacks and option style-type quarterbacks, so we have good plans for both,” Purcell said.
Both didn’t run much, so look for them to air it out more.
3. Will the Saints stay with the traditional running game?
Carroll didn’t hide the fact that it ran the ball last season.
It finished third in the Frontier Conference with most rushing plays, but was fifth out of eight teams in rushing yards per game.
Starting running back Major Ali averaged 72.2 yards per game but split the duties with Ryan Arntson.
With Arntson not on the roster this season and walking on at Montana, one has to wonder if Ali will have a breakout senior campaign.
If he doesn’t, the Saints can always air it out. It might be a refreshing offensive change next season.
4. How will Purcell change the culture next season?
Purcell enters his first season with a program rich in history.
After all, the Saints have won six national titles.
But after four consecutive losing seasons, the alumni are itching for them to get back to the postseason.
How will they get there? How long will it take? What changes will he make?
These are all valid questions that will be answered, but not necessarily over the course of spring practices.
This is a big year for Carroll football.