MISSOULA – As temperatures sore near triple digits, a new season is about to kick off in the Garden City. Montana Grizzly football gets back on the field for its first practice on Wednesday afternoon.
Head coach Bobby Hauck returns for his second stint at his alma mater, preaching a “return to dominance.” Montana won seven Big Sky Conference titles and reached the FCS National Championship game three times during Huack’s first tenure (2003-09).
But his newest group of Grizzlies faces somewhat different expectations. Montana ranks No. 24 in the STATS FCS preseason poll, the third-highest mark for a Big Sky team. But the conference coaches picked the Griz to finish seventh in the league.
Montana has depth and questions on both sides of the ball.
On offense, the Griz will need to find a new leader at the most important position, quarterback. Injured graduated senior Reese Phillips and freshman replacement Gresch Jensen both left the program. Plus, the Griz moved backup Caleb Hill to tight end, meaning not a single player on the current roster has attempted a pass in a game for UM.
UNLV and junior college transfer Dalton Snead appeared the favorite to start after spring practice. But since then, the Griz have added two more transfers to challenge the junior from Arizona: sophomore Cam Humphrey, who spent one year each at Boise State and at Saddleback Community College, and Wheeler Harris, who spent last season as a walk-on at Alabama.
“I know the guys we brought in are going to be capable, not unlike Dalton,” said offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Timm Rosenbach. “I’m more concerned about the intangible stuff they bring to the table — how they lead the team, how they manage the game, that type of stuff. We can build the system to fit them, we just have to get them to continue to grow as game managers.”
The Griz will also need to replace four starters on the offensive line. Only junior guard Angel Villanueva has seen significant playing time up front.
But there’s plenty of reason for excitement. Montana returns every significant skill player from a season ago. Senior running backs Jeremy Calhoun and Alijah Lee lead a deep backfield. Experienced senior Keenan Curran and electric junior slot receiver Jerry Louie-McGee are accompanied by a couple sophomore playmakers that showed breakout ability as freshmen, Samori Toure and Samuel Akem.
On defense, Montana suits up a solid group up front, with a few question marks in the back.
Senior linebacker Josh Buss has received nearly every preseason honor possible, including Big Sky defensive player of the year and spots on the Buck Buchanan and Butkus Award watch lists. Junior Jesse Sims, who moves back to defense end after a season at tackle, and 6-foot-5, 319-pound tackle David Shaw anchor the defensive line.
Montana’s only returning starter in the secondary is junior safety Josh Sandry. But that doesn’t worry the new man in charge of the D.
“Coming out of spring you wondered where we were going to be with them,” defensive coordinator Kent Baer said about the safeties. “Now all of a sudden, it’s maybe one of our strongest groups in terms of depth. All those guys will have to play, but that could be a strong group for us.”
Montana will hold all fall camp practices at Dornblaser Field, starting at 2:30 p.m. each afternoon. They will have two closed-door scrimmages on Aug. 18 and 24.
The Griz open the season against No. 13 Northern Iowa on Sept. 1