Prior to the kickoff of the 2017 Class AA football season, there were rumblings of Billings Senior, which ran roughshod over the league on its way to a 13-0 record last season, returning to the pack.

After all, Gatorade player of the year Nate Dick graduated. The quarterback is now at the University of Montana. Keaton Anderson, one of the best defensive backs in the state, graduated, too. He’s now at Montana State.

Five others – Hayden Hegg, Cullen Roll, Max Clarke, Jake Orvis and Montana Wine – signed to play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

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“I was kind of hoping they wouldn’t be in the same neighborhood (of talent this season),” Kalispell Glacier coach Grady Bennett said with a laugh.

Bennett coached his Wolfpack against the Broncs in last year’s state championship game – a 33-21 Senior win – and in this year’s season opener for both teams – a 37-21 Senior win.

Senior is 3-0 this early season, running past Glacier in the opener, Helena High the next week and Billings Skyview last week.

“I think it’s a little bit different (this season), but they’re good,” said Bengals coach Tony Arntson. “They’re very good up front. The quarterback, he’s a different kid, but he’s very effective. He’s a tough, physical runner, and he can throw the ball. They’re playing a lot of kids both ways, which is a little bit different, but this is a dang good football team.”

Nolan Askelson, along with Shepherd transfer Cade Torgerson, has stepped in at quarterback as Dick’s replacement, and has helped set the tone for Senior in its three wins the season. The future Montana State commit brings a physical rushing element to the Broncs’ offense and is a capable passer, finding guys like Gabe Sulser, Ben LaBeau and Colton Eliason.

Billings Senior’s Nolan Askelson carries the ball against Billings West in 2016. (SLIM KIMMEL/MTN Sports)

“Askelson is just a football player,” Bennett said. “He’s obviously not a quarterback per se, but he’s a football player. It doesn’t matter. He just knows how to play the game.”

As good as Askelson has been on offense, he’s been better on defense. Arntson and Bennett both raved about Senior’s linebackers, Askelson and Blake Allred. Both players were first-team all-state selections last year, and are again keys to this year’s dominant defense, which includes disruptive Garrison Poetzl on the line and ball-hawking Micah Ans in the secondary.

Allred, according to sources, will have opportunities to play college football, too.

“Those two linebackers are maybe as good of pair as I’ve seen,” Bennett said. “I was trying to think back to what two together might be as good. I was thinking back to those old Great Falls CMR and Helena Capital tandems. Wow, they’re just as good, I would say.”

“I think both of them are very good players,” Arntson said. “I think it works around (Askelson). That kid, he’s a special kid. He’s physical and fast, he plays the game right. He’s got good kids in front of him. … They’re as good as any two I’ve been around.”

“I think that (defensive) front, they’re very, very good,” Arntson added. “They’re physical and fast. (Senior coach Chris Murdock) has done a great job. People talk all the time about Billings Senior’s offense, but I think the difference in the program the past three or four years is how well they play defensively. Their defense is playing very, very well.”

Billings Senior (3-0) hosts Great Falls CMR (2-1) at 4 p.m. Friday at Daylis Stadium.