MISSOULA — Normalcy is a feeling everyone has been chasing since March of 2020.
On Friday afternoon, the Montana Grizzlies found a little bit of just that.
The Griz kicked off spring football drills at Washington-Grizzly Stadium exactly a year after UM's 2020 spring season was shut down due to COVID-19. The Griz ultimately lost the fall season and opted out of the Big Sky Conference's altered spring season earlier this year, which has all led to UM going over a year without an official competition.
But practice on Friday was the first step in getting back to a regular routine.
"Hindsight is easy. We should've played in the fall but that wasn't what we thought at the time as a conference so that's the way it goes," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. "But this (spring ball) feels real normal. It’s what we do this time of year. We did get some great practices in and some great scrimmaging and great work done in the fall. This just feels normal as heck."
Friday's practice was the first of 21 scheduled practices for the Grizzlies. The schedule is set to go over a 36-day stretch, with home games on April 10 and 17 against Central Washington and Portland State, respectively. The matchup with the Vikings will conclude the spring slate.
Hauck said Montana will treat the first three weeks as a typical spring ball session. The final two weeks will be approached as game weeks as they prepare for both contests.
At the end of the day, the Grizzlies now have something to look forward to after so much time off in the most challenging offseason they've faced.
"It was challenging because the length of it," Hauck said. "There’s always a carrot at the end. We’re preparing to compete for a championship and then all of a sudden that gets blown up and we don’t know when that’s going to happen again. I’ll always credit our assistant coaches and our players for being able to continue to work hard when they didn’t know when the next competition was going to be."
During their extended offseason, Hauck said the team got practices in in the fall along with a lot of lifting and film study over the winter. Overall, Hauck has been impressed by his team.
"I think that mental toughness shows itself in different ways," Hauck said. "Their ability to bring focus and a good attitude and effort when they aren't sure what's in front of them, or at least in what time frame, has been really positive."
As far as what the Griz will put on the field, UM returns 15 starters including stars in running back Marcus Knight, receiver Samuel Akem, linebacker Jace Lewis and safety Robby Hauck. Other starters include quarterback Cam Humphrey, safety Gavin Robertson, defensive end Joe Babros, linebacker Patrick O'Connell, defensive end Braydon Deming, defensive tackle Alex Gubner, receiver Mitch Roberts and offensive linemen Colton Keintz, Dylan Cook, Conlan Beaver and Moses Mallory. At UM, a starter is classified as someone who started three or more games in 2019.
Hauck added that linebacker, defensive line and quarterback are three positions with not as much game experience as other areas of the returning position groups on the team. Losing an all-time Griz great like Dante Olson at linebacker and two-year starter Dalton Sneed at QB plays a large part in that, along with the loss of Jesse Sims, who played on the defensive line in every game for Montana from 2016-19.
Still, 15 returning starters gives Montana a good number of veteran faces as it starts up again after going 10-4 and reaching the FCS quarterfinal round in 2019. Now, the Grizzlies get a chance to see how the new faces blend in with those returning as spring progresses and fall ultimately rolls around.
"When Montana’s good, we have returning players that we can count on," Hauck said. "We don’t rebuild, we reload year in and year out, and I hope that’s where we’re going but those are just words until we do it."