The Montana Grizzly football team opens spring practices Monday with 16 starters back in maroon and silver, but it’s the new additions that have most people’s attention around Missoula.
Bob Stitt took over the head coaching duties from the retiring Mick Delaney in December, and since then his life has been a blur of recruiting trips and media and booster obligations. This week, Stitt finally gets to do what he does best.
“Just concentrate on football and the players,” the first-year Griz coach said. “I haven’t been able to concentrate on the team much at all since I’ve been hired.”
Montana went 9-5 last fall with a 6-2 mark in Big Sky Conference games, earning its 22nd playoff appearance in school history while notching a 27th winning campaign in the past 28 seasons.
It’s yet to be seen where the 2015 Grizzlies will lie in that landscape, though Washington-Grizzly Stadium is sure to have its share of stars with the talent returning. Eight of the 16 back are on the offensive side of the ball with six on defense and a pair of special teamers rounding out the starting experienced.
In all, 47 letter winners are back in a Montana uniform, 11 carrying all-Big Sky Conference honors.
But plenty of questions exist with so much unknown under the new leadership. The following is a quick roundup of some of the top storylines as the Griz hit the field Monday:
1. What will spring practices look like under coach Bob Stitt?
It’s too early to speculate about the team itself under the former Colorado School of Mines head man with zero practices under his belt at Montana, but this week will provide some clues.
The Griz will practice three times per week for four weeks with it all culminating in Montana’s spring game at Helena on April 11. But this week will be a little lighter: non-contact and helmet-only practices Monday and Wednesday.
That’s not to say the Grizzlies won’t get work done. Stitt has said he expects a base offense installed by the end of Week 1. And he expects -- as always -- his players to work quickly.
“Be up-tempo and keep the kids fresh and excited to be out there,” the coach said. “We’re not just going to pound them into the ground, though. Yes when we’re out there we’re going to go hard, but we’re not going to beat a dead horse and be out there just to be out there.”
Speed is the basis of Stitt’s offense -- he’ll shoot for 90 to 100 plays per game once the season begins -- but to do so, the Griz need the right personnel in place.
“I look forward to seeing what we have athletically, talent-wise, on both sides of the ball,” he added. “But especially at quarterback and receiver.”
Which brings us to…
2. Who will be the Grizzlies’ next starting quarterback?
“It’s the biggest question I’ve got since I’ve been hired,” Stitt chuckled.
The Griz have seven -- count ’em, seven! -- quarterbacks on the roster, and all seven are enrolled this spring at the university. That’s a lot of options to replace three-year starter Jordan Johnson, who recently signed with the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks.
Montana has three returning passers in Brady Gustafson, a redshirt junior, Makena Simis, a redshirt sophomore, and Will Weyer, a redshirt freshman. Three more transferred in – junior Chad Chalich (Idaho), 24-year-old redshirt freshman Eric Prater (Hawaii) this spring and Colter Trent, a 2013 Bigfork grad who appeared on Southern Utah’s spring roster last year, but was not on the team in the fall.
Add into that mix true freshman Willy Pflug, an early grad out of Sunset High in Portland, Oregon, who joined UM at the semester break, and the Griz have an embarrassment of options.
“There’s a lot of guys and you’ve got to see who can do it physically,” Stitt began, “and then once you put in your offense, how many of them can handle it mentally.”
Not all seven will remain with the team at QB. Five is more than enough, Stitt said, with up to four earning reps by fall camp.
3. Will Ellis Henderson be healthy -- and in turn -- effective at wide receiver?
The Griz lost a preseason all-American last year when Henderson was forced to withdraw from school and leave the team because of health issues. The 22-year-old is back in classes, though, and looking forward to his return to the field.
The ailment, which drained Henderson of energy and body weight, turned out to be a combination of a bacterial infection and irritable bowl syndrome. His re-enrollment at school came with a few flare-ups, but the WR said he’s adjusting to life back in Missoula with school and football on his mind.
“With my syndrome, it never really goes away,” Henderson said. “Those daily challenges have been difficult at first, but I’m getting used to it. We’re six weeks into school, so things that were difficult at first I’m kinda settling in to.”
Henderson racked up 1,000 receiving yards as a sophomore in 2013 to go with 14 touchdowns, but appeared briefly in just four games last fall. He caught 12 passes for 110 yards before withdrawing in October to return to the Portland area to seek further medical attention.
Henderson -- counted among UM’s 16 returning starters along with offensive tackle John Schmaing, who missed 2014 because of academic issues -- expects to regain his year of eligibility because he appeared in fewer than 30 percent of Montana’s total scheduled contests last year, the bar set for a shot at a medical hardship waiver.
4. How about the defense? Can the Griz replace the record-smashing Zack Wagenmann?
Short answer: Yes, but by committee.
Wagenmann graduated and took his 37.5 career sacks with him, but Montana returns some stout and experienced pass-rushing forces on the line and in the linebacking corps. Senior defensive ends Tyrone Holmes and Derek Crittenden will hold the edge while five senior linebackers all return as well.
“I think Tyrone Holmes will be one of the premier defensive players in our league,” said Griz defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak of his DE, who was second on the team last season with 7.5 sacks and sixth in tackles (66).
“Ty has always been a very good player; he’s just had a fella on the other side of him for the last couple years by the name of Zack.”
Starters Jeremiah Kose, Herbert Gamboa and Kendrick Van Ackeren all return to their linebacking roles at the team’s deepest position.
5. Speaking of Wagenmann, who will take over the No. 37 jersey?
One of the top traditions within the program, the No. 37 legacy jersey has been passed down to Montana natives over the last 20 years. Since running back Kraig Paulson first handed it off to safety Tim Hauck in 1987, the jersey has resided on the defensive side of the ball.
Whether the next 37 has been chosen or not, Gregorak said he’s waiting for Wagenmann’s word to release the fact.
“I have some ideas, but it’s not my place,” Gregorak said with a coy smile. “It’s all Zack and Zack will make his decision when he’s ready to make it -- if he hasn’t made it already.”
If the jersey maintains its recent run, four Montanans currently dot the roster as senior defenders. Another three juniors play defense.