MISSOULA — With 18-plus returning starters, The University of Montana’s Grizzly football team is expected to be back to its old form this season, as the Griz begin 2013 spring drills on Monday.
“This might be as excited as I’ve ever been for spring football and that’s a lot of them,” said second-year Griz head coach Mick Delaney. “The kids are excited, the coaches are excited, and there’s just a lot of energy – and it’s positive energy. We’ve had our struggles here in the last year, but things are starting to come around.”
The Grizzlies will hold 15 practices on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and some Saturdays at the Riverbowl practice site and inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Montana will also hold four scrimmages this spring (March 23 & 29 and April 13 & 19).
Many of the practices will begin later in the day then in the past. Most will start 4:20 p.m. but they will also have some that begin at 8:30 p.m. in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Practices run from March 18-29 and April 9-19, with a week off during spring break, April 1-7. (The entire practice schedule is listed in the release).
The Griz went 5-6 a year ago (3-5 in the Big Sky Conference), and had their first losing season since 1985. However, they return the crux of their starters back on defense, with 10 starters (which includes 23 lettermen) back from a team that was ranked fourth in the FCS in rushing defense, allowing just 92.55 yards a game.
“I really believe that teams that are successful are built around their defense,” Delaney said. “I take a look at where we’re at in the spring of 2013 compared to the fall of 2012, where we had players who had not played much or never started, and from top to bottom we’re two-deep with guys who can win for us.
Leading the way on “D” are linebacker Jordan Tripp and end Zach Wagenmann, both named first team all-league.
Montana returns its three leading tacklers in starting linebackers Tripp, Brock Coyle, and John Kanonagata’a, who are all seniors. Coyle had a team-high 107 tackles, while Kanonagata’a was third with 72, and both players were honorable mention all-league picks. Tripp was second on the team with 95 stops and had a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss, which ranked him 26th in the country.
“Our linebackers are back in tact and they’re going to get competition too, but we’ve got three seniors who are proven players, with some good leadership skills,” Delaney said.
Wagenmann, a junior, was ranked fourth in the nation with 1.05 (11.5) sacks, and second in the squad with 13.0 stops for losses. Wagenmann will not participate in spring drills due to an injury. Also back are senior starting defensive tackle Alex Bienemann (32 total tackles) and junior noseguard Tonga Takai (30 TT). Both players received All-Big Sky honorable mention recognition.
“Bienemann and Tonga ended up having great years in 2012, and (sophomore tackle) Caleb Kidder (6-5, 260) played a ton on the inside as did Trevor Rehm (6-3, 244, Jr.),” Delaney said. “We’ve got a couple of young kids who can step up and help there too.”
The heir-apparent to the one starting berth at end vacated by Josh Harris is talented sophomore Tyrone Holmes, who started one game as a true freshman and had 25 stops and 5.0 sacks.
“I love our defensive line, they just came along week-by-week last year,” Delaney said. “Certainly we’ll miss (graduated D-end) Josh Harris, but we’ve got Wags, and Tyrone Holmes, Tonga, Alex, Derek (Crittenden) and we’ve got some good young players there too.”
In the secondary, seniors Bo Tully (64 TT) and Matt Hermanson (67 TT) started 11 and 10 games respectively at strong and free safety, and each had two interceptions. Hermanson was an honorable mention all-conference selection. Senior Steven Rominger (23 TT) also had one start at free safety.
Senior Sean Murray (50 TT/2 picks) started all 11 games at the “boundary” cornerback position, and was an honorable mention all-league pick, while senior Anthony Goodwin (38 TT/1 pick) and junior Joshua Dennard (46 TT/1 pick) shared the starting job at the “field” corner spot. Sophomore Nate Harris (39 TT) had two starts at cornerback.
“When you look at the back end of the defense, which is so critical, we’ve got five corners who played last year and started at one time or another,” Delaney said. “And we’ve got four safeties who started at one time or another back there. So, on defense we have to be the type of football team that plays a lot of guys and keeps them fresh. And on offense and on the defensive side of the ball, we’ve got to play to our defense a little bit.
“We have to gear towards consistency,” Delaney said and that was one of his team’s primary goals in spring football. “We’re going to be a good offensive football team. We’re going to attack. We’re going to do some things a little differently on offense, but a lot of it will be the same in some areas. What we’ve got to do is develop consistency on offense. We don’t need to identify starters at every spot, but we do need to have competition and develop depth at every position.”
The Grizzlies only first team all-league pick on offense is 6-8, 325-pound senior Danny Kistler Jr., although UM does return three full-time starters on the O-line. Also back are 6-8, 330-pound senior guard William Poehls (11 starts) and center Kjelby Oiland (9 starts), a 6-4, 295-pound senior. Oiland earned all-league honorable mention honors. Poehls will not participate in spring drills because of an injury.
Junior guard/center Logan Hines (6-4, 291) and sophomore tackle John Schmaing (6-7, 285), each had a pair of starts. There are also several redshirt freshmen expected to contribute on the O-line this season.
“I think we’re going to be better on the offensive line than we were a year ago,” Delaney said. “We have William out for spring ball, but we have Kjelby Oiland at center, which is such a critical spot. You have Danny Kistler at one tackle, but Clint LaRowe (6-5, 2875, Fr., RS) is a talented young guy there. At the other tackle is John Schmaing (6-7, 300, So.) who started a bit as a redshirt freshman a year ago, and another talented young guy in Max Kelly (6-7, 270, Fr., RS) competing for playing time. We have five redshirt freshmen on the O-line, and I think everyone of them will compete for playing time.”
UM lost its three top receivers in wide receiver Sam Gratton (29 catches) and tight end Greg Hardy (29 receptions). But, at wide-out talented sophomore Ellis Henderson (6-0, 185) and junior Mitch Saylor (6-5, 217), had 23 and 22 catches last season, along with senior Cam Warren (15 grabs). Sophomore speedster Taylor Walcott (6-0, 175) and junior Sean Haynes (6-3, 190) are also expected to be factors, and the Griz will welcome six or seven prep wide receivers to fall camp.
“At wide receiver, we’ve got a whole crew of guys out there who can play, and they’ve all played” Delaney said.“We’ve got Cam Warren, Taylor Walcott, (sophomore) Chase Naccarato, Mitch Saylor, Ellis Henderson, and Sean Haynes, who has had a good winter. I think we will surprise some people at wide receiver. I also think we have two outstanding (preps) wide receivers coming in. I think we will have a group collectively as good as anyone in the league.”
Hardy, a three-year starter and two-time first team All-Big Sky selection will be hard to replace, although there is decent experience back at tight end, along with a couple of transfers and a pair of outstanding signees from the prep ranks joining the squad in fall camp in early August.
“Senior Clay Pierson (6-3, 239) is back at tight end, and we have a transfer from the University of Oregon in Curtis White, who if he can stay healthy could be a huge factor for us,” Delaney said. “Probably the biggest surprise since we started our winter program has been a young man named Joey Spoelstra. He’s a transfer from a Division II school (Northwestern College), sat out a year, and, man, he’s had a great year for us this winter. I think he might be able to help us, along with Curtis, Clay, and Aschan Richards (6-6, 227, So.) .
“At tight end we lost an outstanding player and leader in Greg Hardy, but we have Clay Pierson coming back, along with those two transfers, and we really have some talented freshmen coming in as well,” Delaney said.
Second team all-league running back Peter Nguyen has graduated, and ended his stellar career ranked sixth in school history with 1,985 career rushing yards. Also gone is halfback/fullback Dan Moore, who rushed for 413 yards in just five games, but missed most of the season with an injury.
But, UM has good potential at the running back position. Junior Jordan Canada (5-9, 172) was second on the team with 586 rushing yards for 4 TDs a year ago, and Marshall transfer Travon Von (5-11, 195, Jr.) should be a major contributor.
Sophomore Joey Counts (5-9, 220) played as a true freshman last season and will be in the mix. The Griz also signed a couple of promising preps who could compete for playing time this fall.
“I feel good at running back,” Delaney continued. “Obviously we lost Peter and Dan, and that’s two huge cogs to take out of the offense. Jordan Canada has worked so hard during the off-season that I expect him to have a break-out year. Travon seems to be an outstanding young man, and Joey Counts is there, and we have a couple of freshmen coming in. Top to bottom, I think we’re in great shape.”
The one BIG question going into spring drills a year ago was the quarterback position, where there was zero starting experience. That is not the case in 2013.
Sophomore Trent McKinney (6-1, 204) started the first eight games last season, while junior Shay Smithwick-Hann (6-4, 214) started the last three contests. Also back in action is junior Jordan Johnson (6-1, 202), who started in 13 of 14 games in 2011 for the 11-3 Grizzlies.
McKinney was 134-of-205-8 for 1,350 yards and 8 TDs, and also rushed for 399 yards and 7 scores. Smithwick-Hann completed 85-of-139-3 for 993 yards and 8 touchdowns. Johnson threw for 2,400 yards and 21 touchdowns, going 205-of-343-9, and rushed for 506 yards and 4 TDs. His 2,400 passing yards were the 21st most in single-season history at UM.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brady Gustafson (6-7, 230), is a very proficient passer and should be in the mix as well.
“Our quarterback position is as solid as you can ever hope for in FCS football,” Delaney said. “Obviously the return of Jordan Johnson is a big shot in the arm for us, but he’s missed a year of football. Shay and Trent both played and started last year, and Brady Gustafson is probably as good a freshman redshirt as there is in the whole conference. We’re going to have four guys plus a freshman coming in. That will make us much, much better at that position in the fall of 2013.”
Montana returns both its kicker in punter in sophomores Chris Lider (6-1, 200) and Stephen Shaw (6-3, 235). Lider made 15-of-21 field goal attempts (long of 46) and 37-of-41 PATs. He was tied for ninth in the nation with 1.36 field goals a game, and chosen honorable mention all-league. Shaw was ranked 21st in the FCS, averaging 41.83 yards on 54 attempts, and was also an honorable mention all-league pick.
“The other spot I am really happy with through winter workout is our special teams,” Delaney said. “Stephen Shaw and Chris Lider, I think will go down as time goes along as two of the finest kickers in the history of The University of Montana.”
— UM Sports Information