Momentum and continuity give the Montana football team a lot to be optimistic about heading into spring drills on Saturday.
The Grizzlies are coming off a breakthrough 10-3 season and their entire coaching staff from 2013 remains intact. That’s a switch from last March when the team welcomed two new assistants, promoted Scott Gragg and Kefense Hynson to co-offensive coordinators and implemented a new pro-set scheme.
“We made a lot of pretty dramatic changes on offense a year ago and then had 15 practices in the spring,” Montana third-year coach Mick Delaney said. “Now our guys have had a whole pre-fall and a season and a winter, starting to refine the changes we made.
“We’re going to be off and running on Day 1, where a year ago it was teach and install and take baby steps. Now we can jump in on the run. The kids and coaches are really excited.”
When the Griz take to the field at Washington-Grizzly Stadium at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, 14 returning starters will set the tone. Topping the list are senior leaders Jordan Johnson at quarterback, Jordan Canada at running back, Zack Wagenmann at defensive end and Matt Hermanson at safety.
Delaney doesn’t have quite as many veterans as last spring, losing seven starters on defense and four on offense. Still, the coach sees a lot to like in his personnel.
“One of the real pluses I think of this winter and spring is we’ve got competition at every single position,” he said. “We’ve got guys who will fight and scratch and get after it trying to get a starting position or playing time. That’s great when you go into spring having a ton of competition.”
Last year the Griz kicked off spring drills on a Monday. This year they’ll dive in with helmet-only practices on Saturday and Sunday. That eliminates school conflicts for two days.
Tuesday will mark Montana’s first full-pads practice from 7-9 p.m. The squad will hit the field again on Thursday in full pads and then hold a scrimmage from 10 a.m. to noon next Saturday.
“What you’re looking for this first week is to establish your identity you started to form in the winter program,” Delaney said. “Now can we adapt that to the field with great effort and focus?
“Just enthusiasm, intensity ... You’re starting to make the foundation for what we hope will be a really good football team.”
Spring drills will run from March 15-28 and April 7-17. The Griz will take seven days off from March 29 to April 6 for spring break.
Montana returns 44 lettermen from a team that placed third in the Big Sky Conference with a 6-2 record. Also back are 15 redshirts and 13 squad members.
Joining Johnson and Canada as returning starters on offense are junior wide receivers Ellis Henderson and Jamaal Jones, senior tackle Trevor Poole, junior tackle John Schmaing and junior fullback Jamal Wilson.
On defense, Hermanson and Wagenmann will help set the tone along with three other returning starters. That list includes junior cornerback Nate Harris, junior end Tyrone Holmes and senior tackle Tonga Takai.
Also back are junior punter Stephen Shaw and sophomore kicker Ben Worst, who will again battle for the starting job with junior Chris Lider.
Replacing senior linebackers Brock Coyle, John Paul Kanongata’a and Jordan Tripp will be Montana’s toughest chore.
“I think we have young guys who have played enough, have enough experience they’re going to step in,” Delaney offered. “Those that don’t have experience will certainly gain it real quickly with what we do this spring and opening up with Wyoming in the fall.
“Our linebackers run really well. Anymore the game of football seems to be a game where you have to run. That’s why Jordy (Tripp) and Brock (Coyle) and JP (Kanongata’a) were so valuable to us. All three of them could run so well. But our guys can run well, got good size. Now it’s just a matter of getting more game experience.”
The Griz also have some holes to fill up front on offense.
“We lose Clay Pierson at tight end and three offensive linemen,” Delaney noted. “But we’ve got guys that are ready to step up I think. It’s their turn now. Let’s see what happens and let’s go.
“I like our athleticism in the line. We lost big guys but we’ve got big guys that I think are very athletic. They move well and have good feet. (Strength) coach (Mike) Gerber has done an outstanding job in the weight room this winter. Our guys are getting stronger by the day. Those things are really encouraging.”
The Grizzlies will hold a total of three scrimmages this spring. After next Saturday’s scrimmage, the team will hold off for three weeks before its spring game on April 12 at 6 p.m. The final scrimmage will be five days later, marking the end of spring drills on April 18.