How many Grizzlies does it take to pass a football?
It's no riddle, just an exasperated expression you may hear from any laymen who lay eyes on Montana's football practices this spring.
The quarterback pool is about as deep as its ever been in Missoula as the Grizzlies have seven passers vying for Jordan Johnson's vacated starting role for the 2015 season. All seven are on campus this semester for spring practices.
Coach Bob Stitt has his options -- ranging from junior to freshman, from 6-foot-7 tower to the generously listed 6-footers -- and he has his expectations.
"We'll be evaluating every drill, every rep, and hopefully by the end of spring we'll have a good handle on (the top three)," Stitt said when practices opened last week.
But with five practices now under the Grizzlies' belts and shoulder pads slung over their -- well -- shoulders for full-contact drills, Stitt is keeping his thoughts mum.
"I think it's coming along every day and they're getting better every day. You can't say who's the guy yet; they're all getting better at the same rate," he said slyly.
Stitt has broken his septenary into two camps, with the top four earning regular reps with the offense. The other three take an occasional pass of relevance, but most often throw for the Grizzly defense's practice.
Leading the way is a junior with a big arm and an even bigger body. Brady Gustafson, a 6-7 Billings West product, is the senior of the group, which also made him Stitt's front-runner.
"It just kinda worked out that way that some of the older guys can handle a little bit more than the freshmen," the coach said. "It's not always athleticism. You want a guy who can throw the ball, but then who can handle processing the information."
And Gustafson realizes that. His limited resume (2 of 4 passing in four career games for 40 yards) is countered by his quick decision making.
His footwork, while decent considering Gustafson's size, will need to catch up though.
"The QB's got to put it all together," he said. "It starts from the bottom up -- you've got to have a good base, got to have a good throwing motion -- all the way up to the head and you've got to be stable mentally."
That's because Stitt expects a lot from his quarterbacks. The QB runs the show in Stitt's offense, making rapid decisions in a no-huddle approach with ultra high-tempo pace.
"It gives you a lot of control, and it's almost like a sense of comfort knowing that you're in charge of everything -- from the protection to the play itself," said Eric Prater, a redshirt freshman and transfer from Hawaii. "It's cool and unique."
Prater is also among Camp 1, though he's fourth in line based on current reps and flirting with Camp 2.
The 24-year-old from Lake Havasu, Arizona is on his third college stop after four years with the U.S. Army Airborne Special Forces. He landed in Missoula because his wife (a Vancouver, Washington native) wanted to be closer to home after the birth of their son this winter.
Chad Chalich has been in line directly behind Gustafson all spring in his first year in maroon and silver as a transfer. Chalich started seven games in 2013 as a sophomore at Idaho, throwing for 1,224 yards and five scores against three interceptions.
He appeared in four last fall, throwing for 491 yards and two scores, before joining the Griz who recruited him out of Coeur d'Alene High School.
His Vandals ran a bit of the spread offense that Stitt so loves, but not quite to the extent that the former Colorado School of Mines coach utilizes. The junior also has some of the quickness to break the pocket that Stitt likes in his QBs, rushing for 160 yards last season, though that was absent Monday when the defense got to him for non-contact "sacks" four times in 11-on-11 drills.
Rounding out Camp 1 is Makena Simis, another QB back from last year's team. The sophomore also has some experience running a no-huddle, pass-first offense and has also flashed the best speed of any quarterback so far this spring.
"It's kind of like coming home for me; it's comfortable," Simis said of the new Griz offense, likening it to what he ran at Capital High School in Boise. "Where it is different, it is quicker. We have just as much to do on the field, but we have to do it WAY quicker."
Simis most often takes third-string snaps and has shown some of the highest ceiling of the seven, but also occasional inaccuracy.
Among those firmly in Camp 2 as long-shots for the starting gig, redshirt freshman Will Weyer has had intermittent work with the offensive. The Bozeman native boasts the thick frame of a tight end at 6-5, 225 pounds, but hasn't had much chance to showcase his arm outside of the scout unit.
He won a State AA high school championship with the Hawks in 2013 as a pocket-style passer.
True freshman Willy Pflug is also there, largely because of his age. The undersized but superbly mobile passer graduated from Sunset High School in Portland a semester early to enroll at UM this spring.
He throws well on the run, as evident in Stitt's daily drills where the seven quarterbacks run from sideline to sideline playing catch with receivers from 10 yards away.
Lastly is Montana's third transfer: Bigfork product Colter Trent. The redshirt sophomore last appeared on Southern Utah's spring roster in 2014 before enrolling at UM that fall.
Trent, who had two ACL injuries in his days with the Vikings, has exclusively handled scout team duties thus far.
This week's first official scrimmage is another big step toward Stitt's goal of narrowing the field of potential starters, the coach said.
Four quarterbacks -- likely Gustafson, Chalich, Simis and Prater -- will take about 20 snaps apiece in game situations Saturday at noon at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in a public-welcome scrimmage.
"Hopefully when we get them in a live situation on Saturday," said Stitt of the possibility of one or more quarterbacks pulling away from the pack. "It's hard to say, 'Hey that's your guy,' until you get him into the fire."