The 2012 Montana Grizzlies were already heading into fall camp with a new coach, new coordinators, and a new tight ends and special teams coach.
Now they’ll come out of camp with a new quarterback.
Of all the questions surrounding the Griz, the one at QB looms the largest. Montana, coming off an 11-3 season in which they lost a bevy of seniors, at least had a proven signal-caller in Jordan Johnson.
Now Johnson is suspended pending the outcome of rape charges filed in Missoula County District Court; his troubles coincided with the firing of third-year coach Robin Pflugrad in late March.
The rest of the Griz are doing their best to make the dust settle – there’s also an NCAA investigation clouding up the horizon – heading into their first practice at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
“Probably the best way for me to approach the quarterback situation is it’s no different than a senior going off the top and the backups not having played very much,” said Mick Delaney, who replaced Pflugrad as coach midway through UM’s spring drills. “It’s not the same logistically, but it is the same schematically. I think right now we have four quality guys and the competition is wide-open.
“The difference is you don’t have a guy coming out of spring who was ahead of everybody else.”
There are other differences. For one the Griz are staying closer to campus, with drills beginning on the River Bowl field and then transitioning to Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The two-a-day practices, which begin Sunday, go at 8:30 a.m. and 7:45 p.m. – with the latter finishing under the lights in the stadium if necessary.
Speaking of which, the first scrimmage is Sunday evening in WGS.
There fans can get their first 11-on-11, full-pads look at Stanford transfer Adam Brzeczek – he’ll be a redshirt freshman – and Billings West signee Brady Gustafson, as well as holdovers Trent McKinney and Shay Smithwick-Hann. Those are the four candidates at QB.
“Both Trent and Shay had good springs and did some things real, real well,” Delaney said. “Adam comes in as a new guy who hasn’t had the opportunity to show what he can do, and Brady’s coming in as a true freshman. Our job over the next 29 practices is to see who will step forward and be the guy.”
Delaney, whose club opens up against former Griz coach Joe Glenn and South Dakota on Sept. 1, added a caveat: There could be two guys.
“In that situation I’m not totally against having two guys early in the season and then settling on one,” he said. “None of them have any game experience and that’s a whole different situation.
“We’d certainly like to have one guy take charge, but having two guys pretty close to each other we’d have to give both of them game experience to see who better handles the pressure.”
Delaney made clear that the timing of Johnson’s suspension and the arrival of Brzeczek (pronounced, “BREZ-eck”) were coincidental. Brzeczek, out of Queen Creek, Ariz., showed up on a recruiting tape in 2010, for one thing.
“Adam was a walk-on at Stanford and it’s $65,000 a year to go to school there,” Delaney noted. “He went there with the idea of earning a scholarship and didn’t quite get there.
“We had looked at some stuff way back high school-wise and thought he was a tremendous athlete in Arizona. Regardless of what would’ve happened with (Johnson’s) particular situation, Adam Brzeczek would have been here anyway.”
There will be 95 players at camp including, Delaney said, Gerald Kemp, though the senior will be at receiver and his status once the season begins has yet to be determined. Kemp was suspended indefinitely by Delaney in May.
“He still has some things he has to work through and we’re glad that he’s here,” Delaney said. “Obviously any time that you have a talented athlete like that there’ll be things to do to get him on the field. Gerald has come back to help this football team to be successful, and that’s at wide receiver.”
Receiver could be another question mark, though the Griz have Sam Gratton, Bryce Carver and tight ends Greg Hardy and Jacob Haas returning.
Delaney mentioned the strong springs put up by youngsters Sean Haynes and Mitch Saylor and said there are three new recruits – Chase Naccarato, Taylor Walcott and Ryan Burke – who could make an early impact.
Meanwhile the offensive front and running back corps remains strong.
“We’ve got new faces on our whole entire team,” offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach said. “We have some guys up front, some receivers and guys at running back who have played, and we’re going to be relying on those guys to carry the load right now with whoever our quarterback is going to be.
“They (the QBs) just have to gain experience fast and grow quickly, and our guys are capable of doing that.”
The same can be said for a defense that lost 10 seniors who started either full- or part-time. Fans might see a situation similar to 2004, when several true freshmen dotted the defensive two-deep.
The bottom line remains the same: Someone has to carry the flag, whether it’s at cornerback or QB.
“All that said and done, we have to get the guys that we have ready to play,” Delaney said. “Obviously, you worry about a young man or anybody who’s having problems. But you can’t spend time and energy saying I wish he were the quarterback, because he’s not.”
The Grizzlies were voted by both the Big Sky Conference coaches and media to finish third in the expanded (to 13 teams) league race. A year ago – when UM was also picked to finish third – Glenn memorably said the Griz were “laying in the weeds.” They went onto to claim the Big Sky championship.
Delaney doesn’t know that anybody will take UM lightly given the upheaval of the last several months.
“That would be nice if they did, but I’ve never known people to take Montana lightly,” he said. “They may in the back of their minds think we’re in trouble but in the front of their minds they’re thinking Montana is Montana. We’re going to show up with a darned good football team.”
NOTES: Kefense Hynson, hired as tight ends coach in June, is also the Grizzlies’ special teams coach. He replaces Dick Van Arbuckle, who coached under Pflugrad for two seasons but who didn’t live in Missoula full-time. … Delaney said Hynson will be assisted by Ross Brunelle, a Griz letterman in 2005 who also took over from Brad Sternberg as video coordinator. … The Griz have another scrimmage scheduled for the morning of Aug. 18, a Saturday, and another for the morning of Aug. 23, with the Great Griz Encounter that evening.
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.