MISSOULA — The University of Montana football squad opens its fall drills Tuesday with the season’s first practice session in Washington-Grizzly Stadium set for 9 a.m.
The term “rebuilding year” may not be applicable to the 2015 edition of the Griz, with variables that include a new coaching staff and the loss of several all-conference caliber players, this new season comes about with an air of excitement, along with a few questions.
“I’m just excited,” said first-year head coach Bob Stitt. “I’ve said that a million times, but: Are we going to walk out there and see a better team than we saw at the end of April? That’s what I’m excited about.”
Since being hired in December, Coach Stitt and his staff have worked to install a new offensive scheme. Naturally, there will be a lot of information for the squad to take on board in this year’s condensed fall camp, concluded by the Aug. 29 “FCS Kickoff Game” on ESPN against four-time defending national champion North Dakota State.
After a summer of individual voluntary workouts, Coach Stitt believes his team is leaner and meaner than he has seen since arriving in Missoula.
“Talking to (strength & conditioning coach) Matt Nicholson, we’ve improved leaps and bounds in the summer as far as strength, power, and conditioning. I just think with the progress we made, there’s no way we won’t be a better team than when we started spring ball,” said Stitt.
Senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes might be case study number one for Coach Nicholson’s off-season progress, having purportedly added three inches to his vertical leap. That’s a gain you can’t ignore.
According to Stitt, the added fitness will help the players during fall camp, allowing them to focus more on learning than getting in game-ready shape.
“We really want to make sure our guys are physically and mentally fresh every day when they come to practice so we get quality in practice instead of just trying to squeeze too much in,” he said.
To make things easier, Montana returns a robust 23 starters and 35 lettermen from a 9-5 team of a year ago that finished second place in the Big Sky Conference at 6-2. The 2014 Griz hosted San Diego in the first round of the FCS playoffs — upping its record total to 22 appearances. UM was ranked 13th in the nation in the Sports Network and 11th in the FCS Coaches’ final polls.
The Grizzly offense returns 14 lettermen, while 18 defensive lettermen return, along with special teams players.
On offense, the 2015 Griz will take the field under junior QB Brady Gustafson, who emerged as the signal caller of choice for Coach Stitt after a solid spring outing. The 6’7”, 235lb Billings native will fill the shoes of three-year starter Jordan Johnson, who sits third in career passing yards at Montana.
Gustafson will get plenty of opportunities to throw the ball however, as Stitt prepares to roll out his “fly sweep” brand of attack that earned his Colorado School of Mines team astronomical offensive numbers.
Key offensive returners for the Griz include senior wide receiver Jamaal Jones, who led the team in receiving last season with 1,044 total yards and eight TD’s. Junior John Nguyen will play a leading role in the rushing attack, averaging 8 yards per carry in 2014.
Defensively, the Griz will need to replace the NFL-bound Zack Wagenmann, who finished the 2014 season as Montana’s career sack leader (37.5), tackles for loss (53) and forced fumbles (11).
Holmes looks to be the man to fill Wags’ big shoes. A starter in all 14 of Montana’s games last year on the defensive line, Holmes put in 66 tackles (14 of which were tackles-for-loss), and collected 7.5 sacks for a loss of 42 yards.
The broadcast of the Aug. 29 Montana/North Dakota State game on ESPN will feature some local flavor that will give the telecast a big-time feel. ESPN is set to bring in the big guns, with Montana local and sports broadcasting legend Brent Musburger calling the game along side Jesse Palmer. The pair has been featured in some of the nation’s most prominent college football games, including work for the SEC Network and past BCS national championships.
The first of three scrimmages during fall camp will be on Monday evening (Aug. 10) in conjunction with the second practice that day. The other scrimmages are slated for Saturday, Aug. 15, and Thursday, Aug. 20. Only the Aug. 10 and Aug 15 scrums are open to the public.
UM’s annual Great Griz Encounter event is set for Thursday evening, Aug. 20, at Caras Park in Downtown Missoula at 7 p.m.
— Montana Sports Information