This too shall pass.
That pretty much sums up the mindset of an optimistic Montana football team as it prepares to start fall camp Tuesday afternoon inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Griz are hell bent on leaving last season and the damage of an 18-month NCAA investigation in the rearview mirror. Looking back it’s still hard to believe they finished 3-5 in Big Sky Conference play in 2012 after going 43-5 in league games in the six seasons prior (not including the two 2011 Big Sky wins vacated last week as part of NCAA sanctions).
Figuratively speaking, Grizzly coaches and players are convinced their run of rotten luck – all six of their losses last season were by 10 points or less – has passed. From a literal standpoint, Montana is ready to get to work on making sure last season’s passing woes have passed.
How rough did it get?
The Griz finished 11th out of 13 Big Sky teams in pass offense, averaging 216.5 yards per game. They also finished next to last in the nation in pass defense, allowing 288.4 yards per game.
Not to worry, Griz fans. Junior quarterback Jordan Johnson is rarin’ to go after taking an entire season off dealing with legal issues.
The last time he was seen in a game uniform at Washington-Grizzly Stadium was Dec. 9, 2011. On that night he scorched Northern Iowa for four touchdowns – three via the pass – and close to 300 all-purpose yards in an FCS quarterfinal playoff win.
Take his batttle-tested leadership, four veteran offensive linemen and 10 returning starters on defense and you’ve got a recipe for a delicious turnaround season. Just ask second-year coach Mick Delaney, whose team has expectations that far exceed its predicted finish of third in the conference.
“The biggest factor in these guys is how hard they have worked, how much they’ve hung together and how important I think team is to them, maybe more so than ever,” he said. “I really do believe our guys are a close-knit group and it’s just a real positive environment right now.
“You get a feeling of where they’re at just by their mannerisms and attitude. Almost invariably I’d get 7-8 texts a day (this summer) from kids saying, ‘We had a great workout today. We’re excited to get going.’ It just appears to be a special group.”
Montana’s offense will be distinctively different. And not just because Johnson is back.
Gone is offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach after a rocky one-year stint in which Montana ranked 11th out of 13 league teams in red zone effectiveness. Enter Kefense Hynson and Scott Gragg as co-offensive coordinators.
Gragg will oversee Montana’s running game and continue to coach the offensive line. Hynson will direct the passing game.
“I know a lot of people wonder, ‘How can you do that? Is that the easy way out?’ ” Delaney said of naming co-coordinators. “You do it because you’re really relying on each other’s expertise. Kefense will call the plays and be in the press box.
“It’s a matter of where the expertise is at. Certainly Scott Gragg has great expertise in the run game, the zone blocking scheme, protection. Kefense has a great knowledge overall of everything. It’s a good situation.”
Together Hynson and Gragg have implemented a pro-style type of offense with more double tight end and fullback looks and less read zone. Some of it may remind fans of the Bobby Hauck coaching era when UM did more power running and play-action passing and reached the FCS title game twice.
“I think that will benefit the type of players we have,” Delaney said. “We have great size and depth on the offensive line and will use a two-back set sometimes, or a one-back scheme with two or three tight ends.
“I think that scheme will help our play-action passing game. I expect our completion percentage to go way up because of what we are doing. We won’t go down the field as often, but we will still have a nice package to stretch the field.”
The Grizzlies boast three veteran quarterback prospects in Johnson, sophomore Trent McKinney and junior Shay Smithwick-Hann. Behind them are a stable of running backs that includes junior Jordan Canada and sophomore Joey Counts.
“We were able to free up Joey Counts through the summer by picking up a true fullback from Boise State (Jamal Wilson),” Delaney said. “That’s going to help us tremendously because now Joey can be a running back and compete for playing time at that position.
“With he and TraVon (Van) and (Jordan) Canada has had a great spring and summer ... Jordan has gained about 10 pounds and I think he’s really starting to mature on and off the field. He’s tending to business and has not missed a workout.”
One question mark for the Grizzlies is at wideout. They need more production from the likes of Cam Warren, Taylor Walcott and Ellis Henderson and tight end Clay Pierson.
“I think we have a couple scary-fast guys, I really do,” Delaney said.
“What we have to do is get some experience and playing time because Ellis and Cam are the only two with a lot of game-time experience, along with Jamaal (Jones). He played for the University of Washington but he wanted to be on the field all the time. That’s why he transferred to Montana.”
Montana’s defense will be formidable if it can shore up its secondary. Defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak has the best of group of linebackers he has ever coached in seniors Jordan Tripp, Brock Coyle and John Kanongata’a. He also has an imposing group up front that includes Zack Wagenmann, Caleb Kidder, Tonga Takai and Tyrone Holmes.
But Gregorak, who has been coaching in the college ranks for a decade, is his own harshest critic. Last year’s unit was second in the FCS in sacks (41) and rush defense (92.55 yards per game), but for eight months Gregorak has been mulling Montana’s struggles against the pass.
“We all took our lumps, starting with myself,” he offered. “Teams knew what our strength was: We’ve got a pretty stout front seven. That being said, they’re going to attack us through the air. We have to defend the pass better. I need to be better.
“Frankly I’m going to put a lot on the front seven because I know they’re pretty good and they have to do a good job too. We were very high in the nation in sacks last year. If you’re sacking the quarterback, how are they still getting those throwing yards? We’re going to implement some things that I think are really going to help our guys. And they’re all a year older.”
That includes all of Montana’s key roleplayers in the secondary. Junior free safety Matt Hermanson and senior strong safety Bo Tully should make strides in 2013 along with senior Anthony Goodwin and junior Josh Dennard, who are listed No. 1 on the depth chart at the corner spots.
“We just need to play more consistent defense – that’s the goal this fall,” Gregorak said. “I’m fired up about camp and I know the players are, too.”