MISSOULA — The University of Montana Grizzly football team will hold its first practice of the 2014 seasons Tuesday, August 5. All players report to camp on Sunday, Aug. 3.
The Grizzlies’ first practice in full pads is Saturday, Aug. 9, followed by their first two-a-day schedule the next day, on Sunday, Aug. 10.
The first of three scrimmages during fall camp will be on Sunday evening (Aug. 10) in conjunction with the second practice that day. The other scrimmages are both in the morning and slated for Saturday, Aug. 16 and Thursday, Aug. 21. UM’s annual Great Griz Encounter event is Thursday evening, Aug. 21, in Caras Park.
Montana returns 14 starters from a 10-3 team of a year ago, then was 6-2 in the Big Sky Conference, tying for third place. Last season the Griz earned an at-large berth into the FCS playoffs – upping its record total to 21. UM was ranked eighth in the nation in the Sports Network and FCS Coaches’ final polls.
“To start with, the kids have had a great summer,” said third-year head coach Mick Delaney. “They have worked extremely hard, and we have had great leadership from our seniors and our team captains. I just couldn’t be happier with the work that was put in this summer.
“Our goals going into fall are, number one, developing a real strong team attitude, and everything else will fall into place once we get everybody on the same page, and believing in the same things that we are trying to accomplish to give ourselves an opportunity for success,” Delaney said.
On offense, the Griz need to replace three all-league offensive linemen in Danny Kistler Jr. (right tackle), Kjelby Oiland (center), and William Poehls (right guard), but the Griz have a talented group of skill players returning. UM also lost tight ends Clay Pierson and Jordan Harper, who had nine scoring receptions between them.
Top players back are the team captains on offense, quarterback Jordan Johnson and halfback Jordan Canada. Johnson passed for 3,387 yards and 32 touchdowns, and Canada rushed for 1,062 yards and 16 scores a year ago.
Also back are Montana’s leading two receivers from last season, Ellis Henderson and Jamaal Jones, both juniors. That duo combined for 85 catches, 1,768 yards, and 17 touchdowns.
Also returning to an offensive unit that was ranked 15th in the FCS in total offense at 453.1 yards per game are senior Trevor Poole at left guard and junior John Schmaing at left tackle.
“We’ll start number one with team, and then we will get into schemes offensively and defensively,” he said. “The offense is going into its second year with our new system, and had a chance to be a dynamic offense. We will be able to move the ball up and down the field and hopefully have a good balance between run and pass.”
The Griz “D” lost senior linebackers Brock Coyle, John Kanongata’a, and Jordan Tripp, all of whom were named all-conference last season. Other key losses are tackle Alex Bienemann and cornerback Anthony Goodwin, and starting strong safety Bo Tully.
There are some experienced veterans back, though, from UM’s take-away defense of a year ago, which was ranked second in the FCS in turnover margin (+1.4 a game).
Leading the “D” will be returning starters Zack Wagenmann and Tyrone Holmes at the end spots, nose tackle Tonga Takai, free safety Matt Hermanson, and cornerback Nate Harris. Wagenmann and Takai were voted to serve as the Grizzlies’ defensive co-captains.
“Defensively I think we’re going to be probably better than we had anticipated at the end of last season, with the number of seniors that we lost and the great players that we lost,” Delaney said.
“From top to bottom, offense and defense, I think we are right where we need to be,” Delaney said. “We’ve got to develop some young offensive linemen who have not really had an opportunity to be on the field for the Griz, but they are ready to step up and prove that they can play at this level.
The Griz return starting punter junior Stephen Shaw, and two players will compete for the starting job at kicker. Junior Chris Lider handled the kicking duties two seasons ago, while sophomore Harrison Greenberg is also in the mix.
“I am very excited about what we’ve got going on special teams,” Delaney said. “That’s always one of our goals, to be at the very top of the conference and even the country in all special teams areas. Coach (Jake) Cookus and coach (Ross) Brunelle work so hard in that area on detail that our players feel that it is an honor to be part of our special teams group.”
A LOOK AT THE OFFENSE POSITION-BY-POSITION
Johnson (6-1, 195, 3V), a 2014 Walter Payton Award candidate, is 20-6 as a starter. He was third team all-league selection last season. He begins his senior year ranked fifth in school history in career touchdown passes (53) and ninth in passing yards (5,831).
Senior Shay Smithwick-Hann (6-4, 219, 3V) started three games in 2012, and went 2-1, and is the only other signal-caller with experience. Strong-armed sophomore Brady Gustafson (6-7, 235, 1V) and redshirt freshman Makena Simis (6-2, 205) provide depth.
The Griz return their top three rushers in Canada (5-9, 190, Sr., 3V), senior Travon Van (5-11, 195, 1V), and sophomore John Nguyen (5-7, 180, 1V). Talented redshirt freshman Treshawn Favors (5-9, 190) should also contribute. Van was slowed by injuries last season, but was second on the team with 523 rushing yards for six touchdowns. Nguyen rushed for 267 yards and two scores.
Junior Jamal Wilson (5-11, 245, 1V) started all 13 games last season and did not have a carry. Two true freshman, Riley Kack (6-2, 240) and Austin Chadderdon (6-2, 200) will add depth.
Poole (6-5, 285, Sr., 3V) and Schmaing (6-7, 290, Jr., 2V) started all 13 games last season, while senior center Logan Hines (6-4, 290, 2V) has a couple of starts at center. Jordan Hines (6-4, 271, Sr., 1V) may start at left guard, while sophomore Ben Weyer (6-4, 270, 1V) will get the nod on the right side, and they will be backed up for McCauley Todd (6-7, 300, So.).
A pair of talented sophomores, Max Kelly (6-7, 290, 1V) and Clint LaRowe (6-5, 290, 1V), will both see plenty of action at the tackles positions. Newcomer Jackson Thiebes (6-5, 240) and junior college transfer Jared Clark (6-5, 270, So., from Citrus College) should also contribute.
Redshirt freshman Mike Ralston (6-5 ½, 245) and senior Mitch Saylor (a 6-5, 235-pounder who was moved from tight end to wide receiver) are expected to go head-to-head for the starting berth in fall camp.
Junior college signee Jermaine Jones (6-2, 225) from Laney College is expected to make an immediate impact. A big plus could be the return of Josh Horner (6-5, 215), a 2013 Griz signee who left the team for personal reasons, but is now coming back. Also vying for playing time is Cooper Sprunk (5-4, 250, Fr., RS).
Henderson was a second team All-Big Sky pick, while Jones also had an outstanding sophomore season. Junior Chase Naccarato (5-7, 166, 2V) tied for fourth on the team a year ago with 17 catches. A trio of young players, Ryan Burke (6-4, 190, So.), Josh Janssen (6-0, 195, Fr.), and Marq Rogers (6-4, 181, Fr.), had impressive springs and should contribute this season.
Two veterans, senior Sean Haynes (6-3, 195, 3V) and Taylor Walcott (6-0, 180, Jr., 2V), both missed spring drills as they recovered from off-season surgery, but could be in the mix.
A LOOK AT THE DEFENSE POSITION-BY-POSITION
This talented and veteran group returns two starters in Holmes (6-4, 245, Jr., 2V) and Wagenmann (6-3 ½, 255, Sr., 3V) , as well as Takai (6-2, 310, Sr., 3V) at tackle. Junior Caleb Kidder (6-5, 275, Jr., 2V) is a talented veteran as well and had two starts at tackle last season.
Last season Wagenmann, a 2014 Buck Buchanan Award candidate, had team-highs of 16.5 stops for loss and 8.5 sacks, and he was fifth in total tackles with 64. Kidder is the Grizzlies’ fourth leading returning tackler with 40 last season, while Takai is eighth (32 TT).
Junior Derek Crittenden (6-3, 240, 2V) was UM’s eighth leading (tied) tackler (41 total tackles) a year ago despite not starting and adds very good depth at end. Junior Addison Owen (6-2, 225, 2V) was moved from linebacker to end last spring and is expected to back up Holmes. Senior Trevor Rehm (6-3, 265, 3V) had 24 tackles last season, and is an experienced veteran.
Also expected to contribute at end are sophomore Ryan Johnson (6-2 ½, 255) and junior Aschan Richards (6-6, 250), and providing depth at the tackle are sophomores Bo Harris (6-3, 280) and Zach Peevey (6-2 ½, 255, 1V), and redshirt freshman Nate Bradley (5-10, 260).
Four experienced and talented juniors are vying for starting berths. That group includes Herbert Gamboa (6-1, 220, 2V) and Connor Lebsock (6-2, 205, 1V) at “Sam,” Jeremiah Kose (6-3, 230) at “Mike,” and Kenderick Van Ackeren (6-1, 220, 1V) at “Will.”
Two redshirt freshmen, Tucker Schye (6-4, 225) and Connor Strahm (6-1, 235), will also see action and maybe challenge for starting jobs.
Junior Nate Harris (5-10, 180, 2V) is a returning starter and honorable mention all-league pick at the “Field” corner, while senior Joshua Dennard (5-11, 194, 3V), who has a few starts and played in 36 career games, will start at the “Boundary” position. Sophomore JR Nelson (6-0, 177, 1V), and redshirt freshmen Ryan McKinley (6-1, 188) and Chris Parker (6-0, 185) are all expected to contribute as well.
Also in the mix are junior college transfer Chris Taylor (6-0, 175, So., from Cerritos College), along with Marquin Russell (6-0, 185), a 2013 Griz signee who left the program last December but is returning.
Senior Matt Hermanson (6-1, 202, 3V), who will be starting at free safety for the third season in a row, was a second team all-conference pick a year ago when he was second on the team with 107 tackles. Justin Whitted (6-1, 195, 2V) ended spring drills as the starter at strong safety, but junior Jake Dellaserra (5-11, 190, 1V) is a contender there as well.
Senior Jamaal Anderson (5-11, 195) is also vying for playing time, and junior college addition Eric Johnson (6-2, 190, Jr., from Laney College) could see duty right away. There also might be a couple of true freshman pressed into action.
— Montana Sports Information