Pierson leads young Griz tight ends

MISSOULA — There were smiles on players’ and coaches’ faces alike this afternoon, as the University of Montana Grizzlies put the finishing touches on their 2013 fall camp practices Friday afternoon in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Today was supposed to be the team’s final two-a-day session, but Head Coach Mick Delaney decided to change that plan to just a solo afternoon practice, giving his players a break from the grueling grind of fall camp.

One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle as far as the Grizzlies’ offense goes was which players will be factors at the tight end position.

After-all, going into fall camp there were big shoes to fill there, as two-time first team All-Big Sky Conference pick Greg Hardy has graduated.

Fortunately, veteran Clay Pierson, a 6-3, 239-pound senior, has stepped up his play and emerged as the starter at tight end.  Pierson, who earned 12 letters in three sports at Twin Bridges High School, is only in his second season at tight end.

Pierson started his career at Montana playing safety was then moved to defensive end, and then to tight end prior to his junior season.  His first career catch was for a 6-yard touchdown against Southern Utah last season.

“I am excited about the opportunity and the chance to start,” Pierson said prior to Friday’s practice.  “I feel good and can’t wait for the season to start.  I am just going to try to help the team and play the best I can and see what happens.”

“We’re a little young at that position, but it’s always nice having a senior leading a young group like that,” said tight ends coach Ross Brunelle.  “Clay’s done a nice job leading a young crew.

“He’s (Pierson) always been an offensive player, and with coach (Bobby) Hauck’s staff we thought that, but he was so athletic we wanted to try him on defense,” Brunelle said.  “Since he’s come over to offense he’s come into his own and he’s the leader of that group.”

“Clay is a very, very good athlete,” Delaney said.  “He came here not knowing where we were going to play him, really.  He played quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end, safety, etcetera, playing in a small, eight-man school.  He did everything.

“Defense wasn’t working out for him so we figured we’d better find him a spot, and that seemed to be tight end so we moved him there – then the rest is history,” Delaney said.  “He’s done a great job for us at tight end.”

The Griz have a lot of potential at the position, but the back-ups will be young and inexperienced.

That being said, one of the biggest surprises at that position has been the play of freshman Jordan Harper (6-3, 215).  Harper was a member of Great Falls’s C.M. Russell state championship team as a senior and named that team’s MVP.  He recently returned from a two-year L.D.S. mission in Los Angeles, and he has emerged as the back-up to Pierson.

“Jordan is very athletic and I think he’s going to help us,” Brunelle said.  “What he lacks in size he makes up for in heart.  He’s going to give you everything he’s got, no matter what the play is, run or pass.”

“He’s tremendously under-sized at this point, because he’s a true freshman, but he still has some outstanding qualities that are really going to help us in the passing game particularly,” Delaney said.  “He’s a tough guy.  He’ll hang in there and block. We have a nice crew at tight end and we’ll have three of four of those guys who will play for us.”

One or two talented newcomers could be called upon this season.  Mike Ralston (6-5 ½, 245, from Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore.) will more-than-likely be activated this season, while Noah Scarver (6-4, 234, from Washburn High School in Minneapolis, Minn.) may also be pressed into action.

Butte Cousins Aschan Richards (6-6, 240, SQ) and Jonathan Richards (6-3, 222, SQ), both sophomores, are also competing for playing time.

“Other than Clay there’s really not a lot of game experience in that group,” Brunelle said.  “They’ve done a tremendous job in fall camp and we’re going to see how those young guys play on the field next Saturday.

OF NOTE: The Moss Mansion in Billings holds a large fund-raiser every year called “Party for Preservation”.  In that event Billings’ ‘celebrities’ wait on tables and compete for the most tips, in order to raise money for the preservation of the Mansion.  This year there are three former Griz athletes helping that cause who are waiters.  Those former Griz athletes are football players Spencer Frederick (1998-2001, from Scobey) and Colin Dow (2005-08, from Billings), and UM basketball player Shawn Samuelson (1993-96, from Broadus).

The Griz wore their new helmets (they are pretty sweet, but I can say what color they are!) today in practice, trying to break them in a bit prior to the August 31 opener at home against Appalachian State.

Today’s post-practice competition was field goal kicking by the position players.  The finalists were freshman wide receiver Nico Graham, senior safety Bo Tully, and junior wide receiver Mitch Saylor.  Saylor beat Tully in the finals with a 35-yarder, which is not a surprise, because in past years Saylor was UM’s emergency kicker.

A couple of nice plays in “Team Red Zone” work: A 25-yard pass from Jordan Johnson to Pierson (who made a nice, extended catch on the play) to the 5-yard line….Later Johnson connected with wide receiver Cam Warren for a 30-yard TD.

We noted that running back Travon Van is back practicing, and he was running at full speed this afternoon.

Saturday at 5 p.m. the players and coaches will have their 2013 individual and team photos taken in WGS.

The first Mick Delaney Radio Show, hosted by the “Voice of the Grizzlies,” Mick Holien will be next Tuesday, Aug. 27 at 6:00 p.m., and it will be broadcast from the Canyon Club in the stadium.

The Grizzlies’ season opener against App. State — just eight days away — will be Montana’s first regular-season game under the lights in WGS.

 — UM Sports Information

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