Early summer school set a tone for Montana’s 2013 passing attack.
Not the kind with books, desks and teachers. These were voluntary player-run practices three times a week in June and July that helped Griz quarterback Jordan Johnson establish chemistry with a stable of promising receivers.
“I think it helped a lot because now our new offense with new terminology is like second nature,” said senior wideout Cam Warren, who had several sparkling 15-yard catches in a crowd during Wednesday morning’s practice.
Johnson says the extra work put in by Montana’s quarterbacks and almost all of their potential pass-catchers was unique.
“We’d come out and try to simulate one of these (August) practices to the best of our ability,” he said. “It really helped because the offense does have a lot of volume to it. We were kind of able to hit the ground running when fall camp started.”
Montana graduated its top two receivers of 2012 in wideout Sam Gratton and tight end Greg Hardy. The Griz return battle-tested sophomore speedster Ellis Henderson, who has dazzled on deep routes in practice and is expected to start along with steady Warren and speedy sophomore Taylor Walcott.
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After a season in which the wide receivers largely under-achieved with Trent McKinney and Shay Smithwick-Hann at quarterback, Henderson is looking forward to 2013. That’s not to say McKinney and Smithwick-Hann are incapable. It’s just that Johnson is exceptional.
“The moment I met Jordy I just feel like we’ve connected,” Henderson said. “I hang out with him all the time on and off the field. It’s something where we don’t have to try. It’s just nice to be on the same page as your quarterback and really not have to think about it.”
Montana’s depth of talent at wideout has been perhaps most impressive in August. University of Washington transfer Jamaal Jones should to make an instant impact. Junior Sean Haynes and sophomore Chase Naccarato will also make their presence felt.
Coupled with a sure-handed tight end in senior Clay Pierson and a host of running backs who have shown huge potential on short routes, the Griz have the makings of a formidable pass-catching crew.
“We came out of spring with some concerns a little bit at wide receiver just because of the amount of playing time that was at that position,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said. “That certainly is still a little bit of a question. But man we’ve had a lot of guys step up here in the last 20 practices in that group.
“The biggest thing with receivers at this level is they not only have to be able to run and catch but they have to be very intelligent because there’s a lot of movement, a lot of different alignments, a lot of different personnel groups. What they’ve done that’s really good and (receivers) Coach (Torrey) Myers has done a great job with is he’s got those guys focused into knowing what they’re doing, knowing where to line up and then go. You have to do that if you’re going to be a multiple formation offense.”
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Johnson has said from the beginning of August workouts that he loves the speed of this year’s wide receivers. Two weeks later he has noticed another significant strength.
“They’re just playmakers,” the junior said. “Sometimes you put the ball up and you know it’s either going to be them or nobody because they’re going to go up and make a play. That’s a nice thing to have.”
Key to the Grizzlies’ depth at wide receiver is their ability to stay healthy in the preseason. There have been minor injuries that have prevented players from perfect practice attendance, but for the most part the group has been fortunate.
One experienced wideout who will not be ready for Appalachian State a week from Saturday is junior Mitch Saylor. Delaney says he’s ahead of schedule coming off surgery but probably won’t be available until at least mid-September.
“They took and grafted some ligaments and tendons out of that (calf) part of the (right) leg for the ankle and the foot,” Delaney noted. “The calf is kind of bothering him but it’s still the surgery part of it. He’s getting better every day.”
Saylor will be a significant addition with his 6-foot-5 frame. Until he’s ready, the rest of Montana’s wide receivers appear more than capable of picking up the slack.
“We’re getting there,” Henderson said. “There’s just the little nuances now. Like Coach is telling us on certain routes to be off the ball. It’s the little things that make a big difference.
“We’re getting more smooth every day. By the time we play Appalachian State we’ll be ready.”
QUICK KICKS: Other wide receivers who may make their mark early are senior Kevin Berland, redshirt freshman Ryan Burke and true freshman Marq Rogers ... Joining Warren on the list of pass-catchers making noise in Wednesday morning’s practice were Henderson, who snared a deep pass from Johnson, and Pierson, who made a nice grab across the middle ... For the second straight day freshman running back John Nguyen, brother of ex-Grizzly Peter Nguyen, had multiple carries with the first team. Running back Travon Van is nursing a knee strain and Joey Counts has been less visible since Saturday when he carried the ball 10 times ... The smoke at Washington-Grizzly Stadium Wednesday was as bad as it’s been this month. Delaney called it “moderate” compared to what he’s seen in six years. He recalled a past occasion when he couldn’t see the “M” from the stadium.