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Ellis Henderson takes a short break next to fellow wide receivers Zack Hollenback and Keenan Curran before running offensive drills on Thursday.

LOREN BENOIT, Missoulian

During spring practices there weren't enough hands to catch passes from all of Montana's quarterbacks.

That hasn't been a problem in fall camp.

After his first route drill on the first day of fall football practices last week, senior captain and wide receiver Jamaal Jones tossed the ball back to his passer and gazed across a sea of receivers.

"It's kind of funny, man," Jones said. "I was just looking at it during warm-ups and I was like, 'Wow.' All these receivers, all these hands. It's gonna be good and it's gonna be exciting."

The Grizzlies expect to be known for the WR depth under first-year head coach Bob Stitt, breaking summer's slumber with an astounding 20 pass catchers on the roster. Among them are the locks, guys with starting experience like Jones, Ellis Henderson, Ryan Burke and Josh Janssen. But what is even more intriguing are the surprises. Who will emerge from the new crew?

Just seven of the 20 have ever played a snap in maroon and silver.

More than that will see the field this fall -- many, many more by the sound of it -- which means it won't be all juniors and seniors on the stat sheet.

"There can't be a dip from Jamaal Jones to the next guy," receivers coach Nolan Swett said. "Everyone's got to be the same out there.

"The best player that can help us win is gonna play, whether that's a freshman or a transfer or the next guy."

The approach has been proven in the first week and a half of practices. While true freshmen at nearly every other position have run with the scout team, stand-ins for the standouts to face, a handful of first-year guys have gotten real snaps at receiver.

Stitt's favorite so far has been Keenan Curran, a freshman out of Federal Way, Washington.

Curran starred as a defensive back in high school before spending most of the last year at the U.S. Air Force Preparatory Academy. He transferred to Montana in June and has put his full focus into learning the offense.

"Playing defense was a little more natural for me because I'm a pretty aggressive person," said Curran, adding that the Griz playbook has taken some serious attention to learn. "Offense you have to be patient, let your routes develop, because timing is everything."

***

Eleven Grizzlies combined to catch 18 passes in the team's first scrimmage on Monday. Eight receivers had one catch apiece, in fact, and there will be no shortage of shared playing time.

So far the players seem to be embracing their roles, even the veterans. Jones and Henderson have become player leaders, with even first-year Griz Ben Roberts, a senior transfer from Washington State, helping the freshmen adjust, Curran said.

"They're definitely putting the pressure on us early, but I think it definitely helped," Curran said. "A lot of the time they weren't necessarily telling us the route, more so letting us think it through. Then just watching them alone helps and in film."

Coach Stitt said he's liked the way some of his young guys have already progressed, highlighting Curran and redshirt freshman Reese Carlson, who has taken most of his snaps at H-back with the first-string offense.

Freshmen brothers Justin (receiver) and Jeremy (running back) Calhoun also saw time in the scrimmage, Justin getting three catches and Jeremy one to go with five carries from the backfield. Redshirt freshman Caleb Lyons and sophomore Nico Graham, two players with slim to no game experience, also figure to factor in.

But the rotation will fluctuate from game to game, Swett said.

"I don't care what you do on first down in the first quarter; if it's fourth down against North Dakota State and the game's on the line, 27,000 people are screaming, can I trust ya?" Swett said. "If I can, I'll put you in the game, don't care how old you are."

***

Two of Montana's hottest receiving prospects, this summer's Montana Shrine Game offensive team MVPs and true freshmen Dalton Daum (Butte) and Holden Ryan (Billings), haven't had much opportunity to show they belong in that rotation yet.

Daum missed a few days of practice over the weekend, watching in street clothes, while Ryan has already been ruled out for the year. Ryan has torn labrums in both shoulders, needing a pair of surgeries. He will redshirt, Stitt said.

Daum, though, was back in gear for Wednesday's practice when the Griz went in shells -- just helmets, shoulder pads and shorts.

Other receivers junior Chase Naccarato and redshirt freshman Zach Hollenback are also out with injuries. Naccarato was limited last year to three games because of injuries as well.

Stitt wouldn't comment on the extent of their issues, nor on any of his offensive linemen who were out again Wednesday with injury.

"Until we truly know what's going on and what the status is, I just feel like it can be a detriment to somebody," Stitt clarified his policy on answering questions about injuries. "We're gonna be pretty vague all year. Get used to 'day-to-day.'"

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