Defense shines at Griz scrimmage

MISSOULA — The University of Montana’s first spring football scrimmage in Washington-Grizzly Stadium Saturday afternoon went as most early-spring scrims go, which means a good portion of the highlights were provided by the defense.

That is the scenario that second-year Montana head coach Mick Delaney and his staff would expect, as the Grizzlies return 10 defensive starters (UM also returns six-plus starters on offense and its punter and kicker) from a year ago.

UM’s veteran “D” racked up eight sacks and had three tackles for loss, and those yard-losing plays added up to minus-73 yards for the offense.

“I think we are where we should be defensively, and we expect an awful lot out of those guys with 10 starters back on that side of the football,” Delaney said.  “They proved today in their first time out here that they’re going to be a good, solid defense.  I thought they tackled well and they forced a few turnovers, which is what a good defense does.

“I think we’re going to be an outstanding defense,” Delaney added  “We’re two deep at every position, with guys who can play and guys who can win.”

Defensive end Tyrone Holmes, a 6-4, 245-pound sophomore from Eagle Point, Ore., led the way with 2 ½ sacks.  Holmes played in all 11 games a year ago and had one start as a true freshman.  Holmes be the only new starter on defense, as he takes the place of Josh Harris, who graduated.

Tackle Alex Bienemann also figured in big as a pass-rusher, and recorded a pair of sacks.  Bienemann is a 6-2, 295-pound senior tackle from Denver, who started all 11 games last season.

Cornerback Joshua Dennard, a 5-11, 180-pound junior from Phoenix, Ariz. and was a part-time starter a year ago, had a scrimmage-high 5 tackles. Sophomore linebackers Jeremiah Kose (Oceanside, Calif.) and Kelsey Lippert (Carter, Mont.), added 4 tackles each.

Senior linebacker John Kanongata’a  (Bellevue, Wash.) and sophomore safety Herbert Gamboa (San Clemente, Calif.) each had an interception.  Kanongata’a started 10 games a last year.

The offense did have its moments though, and several players made some good plays.

Sophomore quarterback Trent McKinney (Mililani, Hawaii) completed 9-of-14 passes for 101 yards, including a 9-yard scoring throw to sophomore running back Joey Counts – the only touchdown of the day.  McKinney, who was picked off once, started eight game last season.


Junior signal-caller Shay Smithwick-Hann (Kalispell), who started three contests a year ago, was 5-10-1 for 20 yards, while redshirt freshman Brady Gustafson (Billings) went 5-of-12-0 for 32 yards.  Junior quarterback Jordan Johnson (Eugene, Ore.), UM’s starter in 2011, did not participate in the scrimmage because of a hamstring injury.

The leading receiver was junior halfback Jordan Canada (Duarte, Calif.), who had 4 catches for 40 yards, while Counts (Mesa, Ariz.) caught 4 passes for 27 yards and a TD.  Sophomore wide receiver Taylor Walcott (Eugene, Ore.) had 2 receptions for 27, yards while redshirt freshman wide-out Ryan Burke (Billings) had 2 catches for 24 yards.

Halfback Travon Van (San Diego, Calif.), a 5-11, 195-pound junior and much-heralded transfer from Marshall, had a scrimmage-best 37 yards rushing on five carries.  He was followed by Canada (3 for 31) and Counts (4 for 21).

“We made some significant changes on offense this spring, but we’re going to be fine on there,” Delaney said.  “It’s going to take some work and lots of reps.  I thought our running backs; at least the first three guys, played pretty darn well.  The quarterbacks have a lot on their plate right now, but I know that eventually they’re going to start to execute better – which they have to do.”

Sophomore punter Stephen Shaw (Boise) averaged 48.3 yards on four attempts.  Sophomore kicker Chris Lider (Bellevue, Wash.) missed his first three attempts, but then nailed his next three from 41, 47, and 41 yards out.  Freshman kicker Harrison Greenberg (Lake Oswego, Ore.) made 1-of-3 field goal tries, connecting on a 43-yarder.

“I am real happy with our punter,” Delaney said; “he’s going to be something special.  Once Chris (Lider) settled down there today he did pretty good.

“Overall, I think we’re about where we have to be,” Delaney said.  “What I am really excited about is the player’s enthusiasm and their energy.  They are playing football as hard as they can, and they’re having fun doing it.”

The Griz will have tomorrow (Sunday, March 24) off, and then resume their schedule with three practices next week on Monday (4:20 p.m. start), Wednesday (8:30 p.m. start), and Friday (4:20 p.m. start).

Montana’s next scrimmage is Saturday, April 13 at noon in Ronan.

—UM Sports Information