By Bill Foley
Montana Tech fans will get a chance to fill their football fix Saturday afternoon at Alumni Coliseum.
That’s when the No. 7-ranked Orediggers will close out spring drills with the annual Green and White Game. The game begins at 1 p.m., and admission is free.
Tech coach Chuck Morrell said the game will go about 60 plays as the Orediggers close a productive spring and springboard into the summer.
“We’re going to really focus on a ton of our guys who are on the depth chart reps,” Morrell said. “Really what I’m looking for is for the guys to get one more live rep before we go into the summer.
“We’re just going to get out, let the guys play for a while and have some fun.”
The game is part of an entire day of fun on the Tech campus. Tailgating begins at 11 a.m., and the campus will be abuzz with the annual Utter Insanity contest. The day leads into Saturday night’s Oredigger Auction.
First and foremost, though, we’ll have a football game.
Morrell said his offense is already clicking, while his defense is working to plug some key holes.
“We feel really good offensively,” Morrell said. “We’ve got the right tools. Defensively, we’re still a little bit of a work in progress. Our scheme is such that we’re going to bend our scheme to our guys. But it’s also going to take them time to learn our scheme. We’re not just running a 4-3, cover-2 every snap.”
With the Orediggers looking to replace the great Nolan Saraceni, who is possibly heading to the NFL, it might seem strange to fans that the coach feels so comfortable with his offense. The running back, after all, was the Frontier Conference Offensive MVP the past two seasons.
Morrell, however, said running back is a strength for a team looking to win its third straight Frontier Conference title.
Oredigger fans will not get to see sophomore Braden Feisthamel play because he is sitting out the spring with an injury.
Of course, Tech fans know the Savage native from his 128-yard game in Tech’s playoff win over Dickinson State.
They should also know the name Jed Fike, who ran for 143 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown, in the same game. Fike, though, was playing for Dickinson State, where he also ran track.
Fike, a Whitehall native, transferred to Tech for the Orediggers at the semester. The move comes after he averaged 6.7 yards per game while running for 898 yards for the Blue Hawks.
“Jed’s had a great spring for us,” Morrell said. “He’s certainly a very physical style of running back. I think he’s got a chance to be very, very solid coming out of the backfield for us.”
The Orediggers are also counting on redshirt freshmen Braxton Porter, Nick Winfield, Connor Murdock and Will Wyatt to contribute in 2017.
“Right now we feel like that might be one of our deepest spots on the team,” Morrell said. “Right now we feel there’s five guys in that backfield that got a possibility of helping us out.”
At quarterback, the Orediggers are set with senior Quinn McQueary, who broke his hand in the first-round playoff win last November. That injury — along with Saraceni’s knee injury — might have cost the Orediggers a legitimate chance at a national title.
Developing players behind the Montana State transfer has been a focus this spring.
“We feel like Quinn is one of the better players in the conference and one of the better players in the country,” Morrell said. “He’s going to take us a long ways, but we’ve definitely got to develop depth behind him.”
Butte Central graduate Danny Peoples will be back as a sophomore to back up McQueary. The Orediggers will also have redshirt freshmen Davan Norris and Jase Galt vying for time.
“Danny Peoples has been working a lot there this spring,” Morrell said. “We’ve been working a couple other young guys. We’ve got some young guys on the way, coming in with this last recruiting class.”
The Orediggers return four of five starting offensive linemen to lead the running attack and protect the passer. Those four are Jake Hape, Jalen Whitley, Trevor Hopf and Kellin Davis.
Receiver is another strong spot for the Orediggers, despite losing Mitchell Keeton and his 56 catches and nine touchdowns to graduation.
High-flying Dion Williams is back. He caught 52 passes — many in acrobatic fashion — for 924 yards and eight touchdowns.
Morrell is also excited about the return of Chris Lachance, a 6-foot-4 receiver who sat out all of last season with a medical redshirt.
“There’s another spot where I feel really good about our depth,” Morrell said of the receivers. “Right now we feel like we’re a solid two deep, and we can even reach into a three deep at a couple of spots. That’s a deep position for us.”
The coach also pointed to Chris Kelly, Sean Sullivan and Levi Lynde, Tech’s “All-World punt returner.”
“He was in that depth chart behind Zach Bunney last year, Morrell said of Lynde, a junior. “We know he can play.”
Other receivers vying for time are Zeb Bloom, Reid Nelson, Will Hunthausen and Sam McCarmley.
The other side of the ball was hit pretty hard. The losses include All-American safety Gunnar Kayser along with linebacker Drew Schleeman.
Kayser participated in an NFL pro day in Bozeman, while Schleeman, a member of the 2012 Butte High state championship football team, retired because he once again injured his surgically-repaired shoulder.
The strength of the Tech defense will be up front.
“I think the identity of our defense runs through Ty Sanders,” Morrell said. “In my mind he’s been one of the best defensive linemen in the league the last few years.”
Morrell’s defensive line has seven of the eight guys who did the heavy lifting last fall.
“Obviously, we lose Luke Benz there,” Morrell said. “Levi Dawes is back. Brock Beede is back. Brock had a great year last year. James Foot. Chance Hansen. We have a lot of legitimate depth on the offensive line, and we have a lot of game experience.”
Morrell is looking for Connor Wines to have another big year to lead the linebackers. He also pointed to the play of Ike Schweikert, Carter Myers, Jacob Clarke and Brock Polley.
The leader of secondary will be senior cornerback Andre Brown, a first-team all-conference selection in 2016.
“Andre Brown had a fantastic season a year ago,” Morrell said. “His work ethic is unparalleled. He’s such a positive kid who has become a great team leader for us. I really expect him to have a dynamite season for us.”
Brown isn’t the only defensive back Morrell, who specializes in coaching DBs, is excited about.
“Reed Siderius has played a lot of football for us,” Morrell said. “Will Davey is a veteran who started on and off for us the last couple of years.”
Other players in the mix are Tucker Ruathe, Butte High graduate Clay Dean, Drummond native Danny Mannix and former Dillon Beaver Mick Paffhausen.
Morrell also noted the play of Derrick Holt, who handles kickoff, punts and field goals for the Orediggers.
“He’s as critical as any guy in our whole squad,” Morrell said. “When you think in specialized kicking nowadays, here’s a guy who does it all.”
This spring the Orediggers have scrimmaged each other more than usual under Morrell, who will enter his seven season with the Orediggers in 2017.
“We’ve got some young pieces and some new guys, so we actually scrimmaged a lot more this spring than we have in the last several years,” Morrell said. “We’ve been on it pretty regularly going back to the third or fourth practice of the spring.”
The Orediggers open the season Thursday night, Aug. 31 at home against Carroll College.