With a group of young, familiar faces, the Montana Tech football team opens spring drills Wednesday afternoon.
The Orediggers begin a slate of 15 practices at 4:30 p.m. at the HPER Field. The team will practice Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and some Mondays leading up to the April 27 spring game at Alumni Coliseum.
Tech is looking to build on last year’s 8-3 campaign that saw the Orediggers make the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
As drills open, though, talk on the campus is about who isn’t there this year.
Offensive coordinator Ted Schlafke took at job at Western Illinois. He was replaced by Corey Fipps over the winter.
Then last week starting quarterback Nick Baker dropped a bomb, telling coaches that he decided to bypass his senior season for graduate school.
“Nick has decided to move onto graduate school, and we wish him the best,” Tech coach Chuck Morrell said Tuesday.
So, the a focal point of the month of spring drill will be getting a grasp of the team’s new offense — which will still be an up-tempo, no-huddle spread attack — while trying to decide who is going to run it.
Senior quarterback Brian Schwarzkoph, a former Billings West star who started eight games before suffering an injury during his sophomore year, is in the mix along with newcomer Clay Cavender.
Cavender, a sophomore, transferred to Tech after playing one year at receiver at the College of the Siskiyous in northern California. Cavender played quarterback in high school in Shasta, Calif.
Morrell coached two of Cavender’s brothers when he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Sioux Falls. Chad Cavender quarterbacked the 2006 Sioux Falls team to the NAIA national title.
“Out of all the Cavender brothers, I actually feel like Clay is the most athletic,” Morrell said. “He’s lightning in a bottle. He was one of our fastest test out guys in everything we did this spring. He’s a dynamic guy. We’ve just got to find the best way to get the football in his hands.”
One option is clearly behind center.
“He’s a different style of quarterback,” Morrell said. “If he’s got the ball in his hands, he can go the distance at any time. He’s got that kind of breakaway speed.”
Morrell said he’s also comfortable with Schwarzkoph taking the snaps.
“Brian Schwarzkoph has done some phenomenal things,” the coach said. “He has a lot of game experience. I have a lot of confidence in Brian.”
Morrell pointed the unselfish way Schwarzkoph handled Baker being named starting quarterback late in camp last season.
“Brian is mentally tough and very physical,” Morrell said. “He provides us with a lot of leadership, too. Brian is the complete team player.”
Whoever takes the snaps, he will have a lot of weapons at his disposal — from Pat Hansen, one of the top running backs in the country, to senior tight end Leif Knatterud to speedy senior receivers Kevin Moss and Zack Kinney.
“This year we’re looking at our depth, and we’ve got 10 guys who need to touch the ball,” Morrell said. “That for us is a great thing.
“I always look at it from a defensive perspective,” the coach said. “If I can just zero in on one or two guys, that makes my job a lot easier. If I have six, seven, eight, nine guys who can touch the ball and do something with it, then I that makes us a dangerous team defensively.”
Morrell also praised his young, but experienced offensive line.
“That’s a group that has progressed really rapidly,” he said. “That group was named the overall champ of the winter lifting and running sessions. Their effort level is extremely high. They improved all their lifts. They improved all their running times. It’s still a very young group of guys, but man they are really pushing the envelope.”
On the other side of the ball, Morrell said depth is also a key, and the Orediggers have lots of it.
Starting with junior Jacob Workman, the Frontier Conference sacks leader from 2012, the Orediggers basically return everybody on the defensive line.
“I think for the first time we feel comfortable with our depth on the defensive line,” Morrell said. “I feel like we’ve got seven or eight guys that it doesn’t matter to me who is on the field out of that group of guys. I kind of treat that whole crew like starters.”
The group of linebackers, which returns the likes of Mike Touzinsky, David Meis, Niall Padden and Tommy Peterson, will get a boost from the return of senior Ryan Jones. The senior missed last season with an injury.
“Ryan is fully cleared and back up to snuff,” Morrell said. “He broke every linebacker record we had this spring in all the test out stuff. We’ve got a bunch of guys who played last year. We’ve also got a bunch of guys who redshirted last year. That’s a position where we feel we’re at least two deep, maybe even more.”
The secondary lost a leader and play maker in safety Nate Kobold. Morrell plans to use his numbers to fill that void in the secondary.
Morrell pointed to players like Joe Mitzel, Tyler Patenaude, Nate Thompson and Nate Hofland as guys he’s excited about. Senior corner back Devonte Craig, who injured his knee late last season, will sit out the spring as he rehabs.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys back there,” the coach said. “There’s going to be a great competition this spring to see who are guys are going to be back there next fall.”
The Orediggers head to spring with an eye on their Sept. 7 opener at Eastern Washington.
“They’ve bought in 100 percent,” Morrell said of his Orediggers. “They know that the bar has really risen for them. The external pressure that surrounds our team is nothing to compare to the internal pressure that we put on ourselves. Our guys are driven and they’re willing to do the little things to get there.”