By Bill Foley
This isn’t your father’s Green and White Game.
In fact, it isn’t really a Green and White Game at all as the Montana Tech football team wraps up spring drills Saturday afternoon at Alumni Coliseum.
The team will scrimmage at the end of a 1 p.m. practice Saturday on the Bob Green Field. That will kick off a big day on campus leading up to the Montana Tech Auction.
“This is going to be stripped down,” Tech coach Chuck Morrell said. “It’s not going to be a 120-play knockdown, drag-out scrimmage.”
The practice, which is open to the public, will conclude with a live scrimmage of 35-45 plays. No score will be kept.
Morrell said safety is the main reason for pulling back from the old days when a full game was played to cap the spring campaign.
“We’re concerned with keeping guys healthy,” Morrell said. “If a guy gets dinged up with a knee or another injury at this point, I probably don’t have him for fall camp, and what was the point? We’ve got all summer. We’ve got to keep guys health, and we’ve got to get ready for the season.”
The Orediggers have made great strides in the spring as they eye their Sept. 1 opener at the College of Idaho, Morrell said. That is important this year more than ever.
Montana Tech has to replace a plethora of key players from last team that began the season with national title aspirations. Gone are the likes of Andre Brown, Brock Polley, Chris LaChance, Quinn McQueary, Rid Siderius, Sean Sullivan, Chris Kelly, Diovonni Brewer, Will Davey, Derrick Holt, Levi Dawes, Tyler Sanders, Jalen Whitley and Jack Hape.
“We’ve got a lot of new pieces,” Morrell said. “We’re going to be a lot different team next year, there’s no doubt about it. We’re going to be young in spots.”
Morrell emphasized that spring is just as important, if no more important, than in the past. He just is taking a different approach at the end.
The key focus is getting players who redshirted in 2017 ready to contribute in 2018.
“If I start that process with him in the fall, he’s not going to be ready to play,” Morrell said. “If I start that process with him in March and April, and then we have fall camp, then he is going to be ready to play,
If you take a redshirt year, that means we expect you to contribute your next year. That’s a big focus point. Our guys are hungry and they understand that.
That’s why you see so much energy in spring ball.
Of course, the biggest question mark involves replacing McQueary at quarterback.
Three players are competing for that spot, and the number will grow to four when the team opens camp in August.
Cole Hauptman, a redshirt freshman Simi Valley, California, is competing for the job along with a couple of former Butte Central Maroons, redshirt freshman Tanner Kump and junior Danny Peoples.
“We’ve got those three guys rolling at it right now,” Morrell said. “They’re all having their ups and downs. Then I’ve got a good freshman coming in in Brandon Battle.”
Battle is a recruit coming from West Valley High School in Yakima, Washington.
Morrell said he plans to have his starting quarterback set by the end of the first week of the August camp.
Whoever the quarterback is, he will be protected by a deep and experienced offensive line. While that unit took some big graduation hits, Nate Younk, Grant Benz, Kellen Davis and Trevor Hopf all bring starting experience into the summer.
That experience is the one benefit of a rash of injuries to hit the Oredigger big men in 2017.
“We return four guys who have started,” Morrell said of his line. “Anytime you can return four guys on your offensive line who have started, I will take that 100 times out of 100.”
Morrell said he expects his team to feature the tight end more this year with Cooper Christensen of Twin Bridges Jaylen Taggart of Hamilton stepping on the field at tight end.
At receiver, the Orediggers took some hits, but have some exciting potential.
Of the redshirts coming in, Morrell pointed to Kiley Caprara, a former Butte High Bulldog, and Manhattan’s Cole McCloud, a grandson of legendary daredevil Evel Knievel.
The name of senior Dion Williams, though, should be the name that excites Oredigger fans most.
“I think he’s the top guy in the conference,” Morrell said of Williams, who caught 77 passes for 1,004 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017.
The Orediggers are set at running back with a healthy Jed Fike back. He ran for 1,252 yards and 15 tochdowns to go along with 15 receptions for 349 yards and three scores.
“Jed Fike has looked fantastic this spring,” Morrell said. “He’s obviously one of the elite players in the NAIA at the running back position.”
That isn’t the only name you should know in the Oredigger backfield, however. Morrell pointed to sophomore Braxton Porter, junior Braden Feisthamel and redshirt freshman Blake Burton, a Butte Central grad.
“He’s coming in and doing some good things,” Morrell said of Burton. “I’m excited for him. He’s going to find his way on the field on special teams.”
On the other side of the ball, the Orediggers biggest question mark is at cornerback. That, by the way, is the worst place to have a question mark when playing teams like Southern Oregon two times.
“We’re going to lack a little bit of experience there, but not talent,” Morrell said. “If you lack experience and talent, you’re going to struggle, man.
“We’re going to maybe learn some tough lessons, but they’re capable.”
Redshirt freshman Jake Orvis, a Billings Senior, grad and classmate Naoki Harmer are a couple of youngsters Morrell is particularly excited about at the cornerback position.
With Connor Wines, Carter Myers, Nick Amestoy and Jacob Clarke coming back, Morrell expects big things from his linebackers.
“I’m excited about it,” the coach said. “Those are all guys that are top-flight starters in this league.
While the defensive line is losing three-time All-Frontier player Tyler Sanders, Morrell said that position is one of strength for Tech.
Brock Beede, Chance Hansen and James Foote are some names to keep an eye on.
Safety is also a strength for Morrell’s Orediggers. Tech brings back some experience in Justin May, Zack Morris and Tucker Rauthe.
The kicking game is expected to get a boost when Billings Senior’s Cody Gagnon joins the team as a true freshman in August.
Oredigger fans will get a chance to see most of those players Saturday on the Bob Green Field. Just pay no attention to the scoreboard
“The focus for us on Saturday is we’re going to practice up tempo, then we’re going to go live for 40 snaps,” Morrell said. “Spring is hugely important to me, but the outcome of the spring scrimmage, relative to the grand scheme of things, is really not relative.”