MISSOULA — When spring football drills concluded for the University of Montana Grizzlies last April, one of the biggest areas of improvement mentioned by head coach Mick Delaney was at the cornerback position.
The Grizzlies return starter Nate Harris (5-10, 180, Jr., 2V) and veteran and part-time starter Joshua Dennard (5-11, 194, Sr., 3V), as well as up-and-coming J.R. Nelson (6-0, 177, soph., 1V), talented redshirt freshman Ryan McKinley (6-1, 188), and a couple of walk-ons.
The team will be in full pads for the first time tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 9), and its first two-a-day schedule is the next day, Sunday, Aug. 10. The second practice on Sunday will include a controlled “scrimmage,” which starts around 8 p.m. in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
After Montana concluded its fourth practice of fall camp today, the third-year mentor continued to laud the play of the three veterans at that position, along with a couple of newcomers.
“We are really excited about the competition that’s going on there,” Delaney said. “We’ve got some good experience there, along with some young guys and a couple of walk-ons who bring a lot to that position.
“You’ve got Nate and Josh who have a lot of playing experience, and then J.R. Nelson has come a long ways,” Delaney said. “Ryan McKinley has had some real bright spots. Then you add in Shane Moody (5-8, 160, Fr., RS) and Tyrel Garner (6-2, 190, So., TR), and they bring competition to the table, which makes you better.”
Harris, a junior from Chino, Calif., started all 13 games last season and is the Grizzlies’ sixth leading returning tackler with 38 stops a year ago. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions in 2013, and was an honorable mention All-Big Sky Conference pick.
“I think my play has improved a lot,” said Harris, who has four career interceptions. “I was looking at film today before practice, and we were running film from last year, and I was like I am such a different player today. Like, man, I sucked last year. I am really excited for this year. Right now it’s just about working the technique and getting into the mental aspect of the game.”
A senior from Phoenix, Ariz., Dennard has played in 36 career games and has five starts. He is UM’s fifth leading returning tackler with 39 stops last season and has 93 career tackles.
“We definitely are improving,” said Dennard, who played 12 games at wide receiver as a true freshman in 2011. “We don’t really have any rookies, so everyone from spring ball had some turns, so we don’t have much of a learning curve. Coach is relying on me and Nate to help out the younger guys. So our role this year is to reach out to the younger guys and be that third and fourth coach.”
Nelson, a sophomore from Hacienda Heights, Calif., was slowed down by an injury a year ago, and played in 11 games.
Moody is a walk-on from Parker, Colo., while Garner is a walk-on transfer from Las Vegas, who was a starter last season at Cornell College in Iowa. Chris Taylor (6-0, 175, Jr.), a transfer from Cerritos Junior College, will soon join the team in fall camp and may contribute.
“When Ryan (McKinley) gets down and does what he needs to do, he’s a great player,” Dennard said. “He’s a heck of an athlete, plays the ball well. He’s a competitor, and once he puts everything together he will be a shut-down corner.”
“I am really excited about our linebackers,” Harris said. “We had some great guys there last year, but I think we have more speed at that position this season. There was one play today on a screen pass, when I looked around me, there were 11 guys around the guy who caught the ball. I really like our overall speed on ‘D.’ Our D-line got a lot of respect last year, and they just want to take it to the next level. And of course we (the cornerbacks) have always been looked down upon, and we play with a chip on our shoulders.”
“The key to this position is pretty much experience,” said cornerbacks coach Aric Williams, who was a first team All-Pac-10 selection his senior year at Oregon State. “You’ve got to have that confidence, and honestly that just comes from getting reps, and making plays in practice, then, making plays in games. These guys who are back this year made plays last season and have the confidence that they’re going to make plays.”
On the topic of this Sunday evening’s scrimmage, coach Delaney said “scrimmage, you know is not a word we use a lot anymore. What we’ll do is that we will designate three or four different sections of practice for live tackle type of stuff. It won’t be scrimmage, move the ball, offense versus defense. It will be some red zone stuff, some goal-line stuff, some third down stuff, and then decide after tomorrow’s (Saturday) practice which we want to be live and which we’ll keep with thud (non-contact).”
FALL CAMP/GRIZ NOTES: Offensive tackle Trevor Poole, a 6-5, 285-pound senior from Spokane and a returning starter, remains out of practice due to an injury. His playing status for the season is currently undetermined.
Linebacker Connor Strahm had two big plays in the medium red zone portion of practice today, picking off a pass and making a pass deflection on a screen play. Strahm is a 6-1, 235-pound redshirt freshman from Sheldon High School in Eugene, Oregon. Another nice play during that session was a 15-yard scoring pass from senior quarterback Jordan Johnson to senior tight end Mitch Saylor.
GRIZ STATS & FACTS: In the past 12 seasons the Grizzlies have won 147 games – the most by any FCS team. Number two on the list is Appalachian State with 132. The Mountaineers are no longer in the same division as Montana, as they moved from the FCS to the FBS this season.
The team with the most wins during that time span at the FCS and FBS levels is Boise State with 152 victories, followed by Oklahoma with 150, and then Montana with 147.
Johnson begins the 2014 season ranked fifth in career touchdown passes with 53, and ninth in career passing yards with 5,831. JJ has a record of 20-6 as a starter.
Montana’s 2014 season opener at Wyoming is just 22 days away. The game will be televised on ROOT Sports and starts at 2 p.m. UW returns 17 starters (9 defense, 5 offense, 2 specialists) from a 5-7 team of a year ago. The Cowboys’ first-year head coach is Craig Buhl, who had been the mentor at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State the previous 11 seasons.
— Montana Sports Information