Sentinel vs. Billings West 11

Sentinel quarterback Zac Crews (11) runs the ball against Billings West’s Riley Bergeson (9) during the high school football game between Missoula Sentinel and Billings West at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Friday, Aug. 27.

MISSOULA — It didn't take long for Zac Crews to get back into the swing of things at quarterback.

The Missoula Sentinel (2-0) senior played mostly tight end and defensive line — the latter being the position he's committed to play for the Montana Grizzlies — last season for the Class AA title-winning Spartans. He made big plays on both sides, including a touchdown reception in the title game against Billings West. 

But this year he dug up some QB roots and has transitioned from a reliable pass catcher to a dual-threat star, all while still stuffing the run and pressuring opposing quarterbacks on the D-line. Through two weeks, you may not have guessed that Crews took a season off from playing quarterback.

Crews has thrown for 345 yards on 61% passing (30 of 49) for three touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception in wins over Billings West and Bozeman High. He isn't just tossing short routes either, with an average of 11.5 yards per completion. He's using his legs, too, with a team-high 243 rushing yards on a team-high 40 carries. Plus, he has three rushing TDs.

From late-game heroics in style like his jump pass at the goal line to teammate Joseph Weida against West to put the Spartans up three points in a playoff-like environment, to big plays like his 54-yard TD run against Bozeman, Crews has done a bit of everything except catch a pass — which could happen if Sentinel wants to break out a trick play for the former tight end.

In all, Crews has accounted for 77.8% of the top-ranked Spartans' total offense — combining rushing and passing yards — in two games and has played a part in six of the Spartans' eight total touchdowns. Adam Jones is second on the team in carries at 38 while just one other player, Peyton Stevens on a double pass in Week One, has thrown the ball.

Throw in Crews' workload on defense with seven tackles and one pass deflection, and the snap count is adding up quick.

But that hasn't bothered the senior.

In fact, he said during a Wednesday phone interview that he doesn't really think about it. He's more focused on doing whatever his team and head coach Dane Oliver need from him, such as playing quarterback on offense and then getting right back out on defense to lead from the defensive line on the edge.

"Honestly, in the game, I don't even really think about it with the adrenaline, the game, the atmosphere, energy and stuff you can't really notice how much you're doing," he said. "But I think that a lot of it's taken off of my shoulders because our O-line has been playing great. Our receivers have been great making plays on the ball. Adam Jones and Kellen Curtiss have been doing a great job turning the ball as well."

Crews last got meaningful quarterback time his sophomore season in 2019 playing behind then-junior starter Dayton Bay. The Spartans ran their two-QB scheme, using Bay as the main slinger as he went for 2,053 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Crews meanwhile was the running threat, accumulating 225 rushing yards and three scores playing with star running back Jaxon Lee, who went on to play safety for the Griz after he rushed for over 1,200 yards and found the end zone 16 times his senior season. 

Then came 2020, and the Spartans added transfer QB Camden Sirmon to the mix. Crews was asked to switch to tight end, where he could make use of his 6-foot-6 frame and become a key target for Sirmon and Bay.

And he was key. Crews caught 17 passes for 301 yards and five scores last season. He was second on the team in TDs and fourth in receptions and yards while playing alongside three senior pass catchers in 2020.

Now we hit 2021. With Sirmon and Bay graduated — the former ending up at Washington after he de-committed from the Griz — Crews was asked once more to switch spots. Unsurprisingly, he did so with confidence and embraced the challenge given to him.

"I'm just trying to do whatever my team needs. Coach Oliver, he does a great job, you know, team-first mentality, and I live by that. Sophomore year, I was backup quarterback, then I was moved to slot receiver and tight end, and still was at defensive end position. So, I've been kind of a foundation on defense through those three years, and I like to take a leadership role in the defensive side of the ball as well since I've had a lot of experience on D-end."

"But, you know, doing whatever the team needs is a very high expectation in the Spartan program, and I like to lead by example and do what the team needs," Crews said.

Some of that confidence, he said, comes from his time playing tight end and defensive line. Plenty of prep quarterbacks play defensive back or even linebacker, and can read the middle and deep parts of the field with that experience. Crews has experience closer in the trenches.

Other confidence came from a QB camp in Missoula when former Montana QB and longtime NFL coach Marty Mornhinweg's camp in early July featured some of the best in the state, including Crews.

"To get some of that knowledge from him was awesome," he said. "It was fun being out there with all the other AA quarterbacks, even some from A and B schools were there. To be able to work with those guys, to see how they operated since most of them had already played at the varsity level at quarterback I kinda watch some of those guys, saw how they operated and I try to translate it into my own style and own way."

Not alone in town

Crews isn't the only first-year starting quarterback playing well two weeks in.

Missoula Hellgate (1-1) junior slinger Connor Dick has thrown for 598 yards through two games in his first season starting at varsity quarterback. He completed just 54.8% (46 of 84) of his passes but already has seven passing TDs and three interceptions for a dangerous Hellgate offense. He also had 159 rushing yards in the first game against Great Falls CMR.

Not far across town, Missoula Big Sky senior Caleb Hren had his best game of the year in a blowout win over Billings Skyview last week. Hren, who has thrown for 384 yards and three TDs this season, went for 248 passing yards and three scores on 14-of-21 passing. He also ran for a score against Skyview.

Lance Hartzler covers Griz men's basketball and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter at @lance_hartz or shoot him an email at Lance.Hartzler@406mtsports.com.

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