A second year in a new system. A center returning from injury. More than 90 combined starts among the group.

There are no excuses for Montana's offensive line this year. But that's just the way the big guys like it.

"We want the game to be put in our hands and not anybody else's," junior center Robert Luke said. "We want the game to be decided by us."

Maligned the past few years – and certainly at times in head coach Bob Stitt's first season in Missoula – the Griz O-line returns experience at every position with high expectations across the board. With only one starter gone, UM brings back seven linemen who have started multiple games, the total reaching 92 in all.

The Grizzlies' 2016 begins and ends in the trenches, Stitt said.

"Over the last few years, the O-line has really taken a lot of the blame for the offense not producing like they should," Stitt said last month at the start of spring practices. "But man, are we excited about those kids."

Second-team All-Big Sky Conference left tackle John Schmaing was the lone departure from last season, though the tackle opposite him returns in David Reese. The 6-foot-7 junior is up 25 pounds to 295 from this time a year ago and will slide across the formation to fill Schmaing's vacated spot.

Reese is set to be a three-year starter after filling in for Schmaing as a freshman in 2014 when the latter was forced to the sideline with academic issues. The Oregon native said he's as secure in guarding quarterback Brady Gustafson's blindside as he is on the right.

"It's not different, it's just your stance and getting more comfortable," Reese assured. "The first week of spring ball was just adjusting to getting back to the left side."

On the other end, senior Jackson Thiebes, a former tight end and another 295-pounder who stands 6-5, has taken the first-team snaps through nine practices this spring.

Senior Devon Dietrich (6-4, 302) will again man the right guard, coming off an honorable mention all-conference season. He too is expected to start for a third season.

The other guard position will be a battle between senior McCauley Todd (6-7, 295) and junior Max Kelly (6-7, 305). Todd snatched the starting spot from Kelly for the sixth game of the season against Weber State last year after fighting early knee injuries.

Expect a three-way duel once prospective senior center (6-4, 305) Ben Weyer, who missed all of last year with an ACL tear in August, returns to claim his snapping spot. Junior Robert Luke (6-4, 310), who stood in for all 13 games in 2015, will likely slide to guard.

"There's still some battles going on to say the least," offensive line coach Chad Germer said. "There's guys in the fight to be in the two-deep, to not be on the scout team. It's not just to be the starter, it's the sixth guy, the seventh guy."

***

Both Stitt and the players praised Germer's aptitude as a coach along the O-line. His simplistic approach championing accountability and responsibility has been a relief. Paired with Stitt's offensive style – which while grinding in a conditioning sense, is also straightforward in terms of blocking-schemes – the biggest Griz are feeling a shift toward that dominant offensive line attitude.

"With the old coaching staff, we had what felt like one of the most complex offenses," Dietrich said of the pro-style sets, featuring multiple backs and tight ends, which were run under former head coach Mick Delaney.

"Going from that to this where it's one backer, two backer in the box and that's it, it's really nice to be able to look at your stack, find your guys you're comboing to and go. There's nothing else than that."

And the linemen seem to be getting the hang of it more and more with each passing day, Luke added. They're not worried about a tough showing in the first spring scrimmage, notorious each year for its less-than-stellar offensive outings, when the defense rolled to nine sacks.

They can feel the difference and it's drastic from last year.

"Even this spring, better than some of the games last season," Luke said. "Our entire offensive line, including myself, have improved greatly. If you go back and watch those games during the season, we see a significant improvement with every one of us."

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