STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION
MISSOULA – After nearly a month of offseason conditioning, the Montana Grizzlies return to the field this week to officially begin the 2018 season as spring ball commences Monday afternoon.
Head Coach Bobby Hauck and his staff have seen how the team handles gut-busting fitness sessions, and will now get their first real look at the team’s football ability over fourteen practice sessions culminating with the annual Spring Game on April 14 in Missoula.
The Griz will start the spring season – which is looking more like winter with recent snowfalls in Western Montana – on the all-weather turf inside Washington-Grizzly stadium before moving out to the traditional proving grounds of the Riverbowl practice field in mid-March when the tundra thaws.
And do some proving they will have to do.
With seven new members on the Grizzly coaching staff who have yet to see their team play a live snap (including the head man himself), Montana’s 79-man active roster will use the spring season as an opportunity to introduce themselves.
And with so much unfamiliarity, the staff will be looking for the simple things to stand out as they begin the task of building a depth chart.
“To me, it’s almost an open tryout. We’re going to give everybody chances and see where they fit into this defense and build it from there,” said Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer. “We know what we want to do, but I want to see who plays hard, who’s tough, how fast they learn, do they love football, are they physical, can they take coaching, those kinds of things.”
With over 40 years of experience at some of the nation’s top programs, it’s not the first time Baer has started spring ball with a new staff.
But whether that spring season is at the University of Washington on inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Baer and the Grizzly staff have the luxury of a young squad with 42 returning lettermen and 20 returning starters from last year’s 7-4 team that led the nation in tackles-for-loss and ranked in the top-10 in total offense.
“Every place is unique and is built on different pieces to the puzzle, and they’re all shaped differently,” Baer added. “The faster you can figure out how those pieces fit together, the better off you’re going to be.”
Luckily for Baer and his defensive staff, the Griz return some capable puzzle pieces, with known quantities in seven returning starters and nine of last year’s top 15 tacklers, led by All-Big Sky linebacker and two-time team MVP Josh Buss.
Gone are defensive end Tucker Schye and linebacker James Banks, who each averaged 1.4 TFLs per-game to lead the Big Sky. Banks was especially productive for the Griz as the No. 12 tackler in the nation, averaging 10.1 takedowns per-game.
But ready to fill Shye’s shoes at DE is Chris Favoroso, who emerged as a top pass rusher for the Griz last with 13 TFLs and six sacks, the second most on the team. Randy Rodriguez also saw plenty of valuable time his freshman year, logging three sacks and a fumble recovery.
The interior defensive line returns plenty of ability as well, not to mention plenty of size, with 6-5, 319-pound Maryland transfer David Shaw returning to fill running lanes. Junior Jesse Sims, who started every game his sophomore year at tackle, is also back to lead from the front.
With Banks and Connor Strahm gone, Vika Fa’atuiese will get more reps as a potential starter this season at linebacker, started three times for Strahm at the beginning of last season. Senior Shayne Cochran will also provide plenty of physicality at the position, tallying 3.5 TFLs and 20 tackles as a junior.
Looking to make a name for themselves are a trio of freshman linebackers who will see their first action. Michael Mathews, Carder Key, and Marcus Welnel will each add depth to the group as redshirt freshmen.
Also in the mix this year is Whitefish native Jed Nagler, who will switch over from wide receiver to linebacker after making an impact on special teams last year with four tackles. He’ll look to fill a slot left vacant by Dante Olson, who will bring his physical prowess to defensive end.
Montana will return plenty of experience but not a lot of depth in the defensive backfield.
Safety Josh Sandry started every game as his sophomore season and is the teams’ second leading returning tackler from a year ago. A nose for the ball, Sandry also picked off three passes and racked up 114 return yards and a touchdown in his breakout year. Senior Evan Epperly also returns at safety after earning the starting job at the end of last season.
In his inaugural signing class, Hauck brought in another safety expected to make an immediate impact in Arizona transfer Gavin Robertson, who paints a physical picture. Northern Arizona transfer Robby Hauck will also provide competition to for playing time.
Adding more depth to the defensive backfield is converted receiver Kobey Eaton, a junior whose length and speed could be an asset.
At the skill positions, Montana returns all starters except H-back Josh Horner, giving the Griz plenty of options on paper. But like the defense, the coaching staff will need to look at its puzzle pieces to see where they fit into the larger picture.
“There is some good field and game experience, so that will be a positive moving forward. The question is how fast they can adapt to different coaches and how fast they come together? That will say a lot about how they do on the field,” said Offensive Coordinator Timm Rosenbach.
“There are always individuals that have played that don’t become guys, and individuals who haven’t played that become guys. You don’t know. You’ve got to have some competition.”
He’ll get that competition at one of the most important positions on the field too.
The bad news for the Griz last season was that the team was forced to turn to a freshman quarterback just three games into the year.
The good news is that Gresch Jensen flourished in his first year of college football as a finalist for the STATS FCS Jerry Rice award for the nation’s top freshman, producing the best first-year numbers in Montana history.
Despite Jensen’s emergence as the potential QB of the future, Hauck and his staff added an upperclassman with plenty of big-game experience in former UNLV signal caller Dalton Sneed.
“The best part of that situation is that you have guys with experience,” Rosenbach added. “The competition will be good for us at that position and should make us a better team.”
One of the hottest topics of conversation since Hauck’s return has been the addition of a tight end to the offense.
With none on the roster, the Griz are loading up with some converts for the spring season. Some obvious changes include sizeable receivers Colin Bingham, freshmen Matt Rensvold and Bryson Deming. With a 6-4, 215-pound frame, quarterback Caleb Hill will also switch over to become a tight end this spring.
Junior big man Angel Villanueva will anchor a young but sizeable offensive line having started every game of his career to date.
Brandon Scott, a 6-7, 295-pound sophomore will try to fill the shoes of All-Big Sky tackle David Reese. Thayne Jackson> will miss spring ball as he recovers from surgery, but come September will look to play a leadership role in the group. Conlan Beaver also saw plenty of action as a backup at tackle his freshman year and will return with his high-motor work rate.
Coach Justin Green’s running backs return veteran Jeremy Calhoun and will be bolstered by Rey Green, who looked strong last spring as a freshman until he suffered an injury. Washington State transfer Alijah Lee also had a breakout year for the Griz as well in 2017, averaging nearly four yards per carry.
Griz practices are open to the public. Phone/social media use during practice is prohibited, however.
Tickets to the Spring Game cost $5, and are available starting Wed. March 8.
Griz Football 2018 Spring Practice Schedule
Monday, March 5 – Practice #1 – WGS
Wednesday, March 7 – Practice #2 – WGS
Friday, March 9 – Practice #3 – WGS
Monday, March 12 – Pro Day Monday,
March 12 – Practice #4 – WGS Wednesday,
March 14 – Practice #5 – WGS Friday,
March 16 – Practice #6 – WGS Monday,
March 19 – Practice #7 – Riverbowl Wednesday,
March 21 – Practice #8 – Riverbowl Friday,
March 23 – Practice #9 CLOSED
Monday, April 2 – Practice #10 – Riverbowl
Wednesday, April 4 – Practice #11 – Riverbowl
Friday, April 6 – SCRIMMAGE – Riverbowl
Monday, April 9 – Practice #12 – Riverbowl
Wednesday, April 11 – Practice #13 – Riverbowl
Saturday, April 14 – Spring Game: 1 p.m. – Washington-Grizzly Stadium
Montana 2018 Schedule
9.1 NORTHERN IOWA
9.15 at Western Illinois
9.22 SACRAMENTO STATE
9.29 at Cal Poly
10.6 PORTLAND STATE
10.13 at North Dakota
10.27 UC DAVIS
11.3 at Southern Utah
11.10 at Idaho
11.17 MONTANA STATE
(Home games in caps)