BUTTE — Considering quarterback Blake Thelen filled in for an injured Jet Campbell in eight of Montana Tech football's 10 games last season, head coach Kyle Samson considers him a de facto returning starter under center in 2023.
"With how much (Thelen) played and how much success he had, we fully expect him to come and lead us and be a great quarterback in this league," said Samson from Bob Green Field on Wednesday evening for the Orediggers' first practice of fall camp.
Stability at the quarterback position may be the catalyst Tech needs to break through this season after concluding last year at 7-3 to finish in third place in the Frontier Conference behind co-league champions Carroll College and College of Idaho, who both posted 8-2 records.
Tech's 27-21 loss to Montana Western in the Orediggers' final home game of the 2022 campaign handed the Diggers their third loss and ultimately jettisoned any hope of earning an at-large playoff bid.
But with a proven signal caller now under center, the bulk of its starting defense returning and a coaching staff that made it through the offseason with no turnover, Samson feels that this team — which has seen a steady ascension each season since he took over the program in January 2020 — may be on the verge of a breakthrough in 2023.
"We know that it's going to be a heck of a challenge this year, but we got a lot of guys back, a lot of experience," said Samson. "We're fully expecting to go out and have a tremendous year."
In place of Campbell, Thelen piled up 1,375 passing yards last season and three 12 touchdown passes against four interceptions last year. He's looking to stay the course this season, and is hoping to see it pay off.
"Nothing new this season, just go out and do what we started to do last year, just finish a little stronger this year," said Thelen, a Great Falls product who transferred to Tech from Montana State in 2021.
Trevor Hoffman, Tech's top receiver the past three seasons, graduated and left a void at that position that the Orediggers will need to shore up. But Tech returns wideouts Kyle Smith and Wyatt Alexander who each hauled in three touchdown receptions last season as well as Jordan Jackson who had a promising showing in Tech's spring game.
"It's hard to replace a guy like (Hoffman)," said Thelen. "But we've got pieces at the wide receiver spot that we all feel pretty good about."
The Orediggers will get a clear sense of where they stand when they host the defending conference champion Saints in the Copper Game on Aug. 31 with kickoff slated for 6 p.m. at Alumni Coliseum. Thelen knows what it's going to take for the Orediggers to contend with Carroll as Tech looks to start off the season with a win.
"Everything we have," said Thelen. "Starting with Carroll, they're the defending Frontier champions, we know that. We got that game starred on our schedules. Should be a good one."