Montana Western’s football team closed the 2014 season on a very high note.
Now, the Bulldogs are hoping that will carry over to a fast start in 2015 as Western opens the new campaign at Rocky Mountain College Saturday in Billings. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at the Herb Klindt Field.
“The kids are buying in and they’re staying around (for the summer),” Western third-year head coach B.J. Robertson said when asked about the positive vibe that has followed the team through the off season.
Western had nearly 40 players stick around to work out in Dillon throughout the summer.
“You can’t do that without support from the community,” Robertson said. “The community has been awesome for us.”
All of “Bulldog Nation” seems to be energized by the Western football team, which won its final four games to finish at 6-4 in Frontier Conference play and 6-5 overall in 2014. The one nonconference game was at Big Sky Conference champion Eastern Washington.
The Bulldogs 5-2 in their last seven games.
“We’re eagerly anticipating kickoff,” Robertson said. “We’re ready to get it on.”
The Bulldogs will get it on with a true freshman playing quarterback. Which that quarterback will be, however, is still up in the air.
Bradley Smith (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) of Iona, Idaho, and J.D. Ferris (6-2, 170 pounds) of Dillon will take the quarterback competition right up until game day.
Ferris, of course, is a familiar name for the Bulldogs for many reasons. He’s carrying on long line of Ferris Bulldogs. He also led the Dillon Beavers to back-to-back Class A State titles, including last year’s thrilling comeback over Butte Central in the title game in Butte.
Robertson said it is likely both quarterbacks will see time Saturday and throughout the early part of the season.
Whoever quarterbacks the Bulldogs, he will have a handful of weapons at his disposal to go along with a four-headed running attack and an experienced offensive line.
Junior receiver Beau Brekke is Western’s leading receiver after catching 40 passes for 634 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. Brekke, however, will sit out the opener with a tight hamstring.
Junior Tyler Murray will get the start in Brekke’s place. He’ll start along with Matt Fuhrman and Quinn Chamberlain and tight end Matt Lickford.
Robertson said Western’s depth at the receiver position will allow the Bulldogs to redshirt Butte Central freshman Chad Peterson. George Sherwood, Scott Mundanhiol, Tristan Clark and Charlie Switzer are also in the mix to catch some passes.
Sam Rutherford, who ran for 1,061 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore, is the starting running back. Dylan Kramer, T.J. Leap and Hunter Thomsen will also compete for carries.
“There’s some guys who can carry the ball, and that will take some pressure off the quarterback,” Robertson said.
They’ll be running the ball behind offensive line that feature’s senior right guard Will Thacker. He is one of four returning starters up front.
“Will Thacker, according to some people, is one of the top 10 players in the Frontier Conference,” Robertson said. “For an offensive lineman, that says a lot.”
Senior Caleb DeGroot will start at right tackle, sophomore Shayden Flint gets the nod at center, sophomore Donovan Hucke will start at left guard and junior Kylan Putman is the starting right tackle. Connor Schulte, a redshirt freshman from Butte Central, is listed as the backup center.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the 2015 Bulldog offense is new offensive coordinator Terry Thomas, who won five Class A State titles as the head coach of the Dillon Beavers.
Defensive coordinator Rob Goode, who is in his third year in Dillon, has the unenviable task of trying to replacing All-American safety Jesse McCloud.
Western, though, has nine returning defensive starters. That includes senior inside linebackers Joe Coker and A.J. Wilson and senior strong safety Ben Sulser. In all, seven of the starters are seniors.
“We have such an awesome group of guys who are seniors,” Robertson said.
Up front, junior Reno Ward and junior Andrew Gilpin will start at end on either side of nose tackle Tyrell Penner, a sophomore.
Seniors Dakota Wainwright and T.J. Benson will start at outside linebacker, while junior Mitch Pelroy and senior Dakota Pineda are the No. 1 cornerbacks. Sophomore Jay Owens switched from cornerback to start at free safety.
Depth on defense means Butte High graduate Tyler Wonnacott and BC grad Kaemin Richards will redshirt.
Robertson said his entire team has been dedicated to building on last season’s success.
“We tell our guys all the time that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but lack of hard work does guarantee a lack of success,” the coach said.
After opening at Western, the Bulldogs play the College of Idaho Sept. 12 at home. After playing at Northern on Sept. 19, the Bulldogs will be at home for back-to-back weeks to take on Carroll College and Southern Oregon.
Carroll is the defending conference champion, while Southern Oregon is the defending national champ. Western plays both teams just once this season.
The Bulldogs also play Montana Tech only once. That game is Nov. 14 in Butte. Western plays at home and away against Rocky, College of Idaho and Northern.
On Oct. 17, the Bulldogs travel to La Grande, Oregon, for their lone game against the Mountaineers. Western will not play a non-conference game this season.
Robertson said the Bulldogs have no easy games on the schedule in the wild Frontier Conference.
“One week doesn’t make a season,” the coach said, “but you’ve got to be ready every week in this league.”