Graduating eight starters on defense and seeing a slew of other high performers leave the football program in the offseason had Montana entering spring drills riddled with questions this March.
With its annual spring game now in the books, closing out another edition of offseason practices, many of those uncertainties now have answers -- at least in some form. The offense came together much quicker in head coach Bob Stitt's second spring in Missoula, understandably so, and the defense surprised at times with speed and a distinct pass-rushing ability.
As the Griz head into their second long offseason hibernation, not to be awoken until the heat of August to prepare for Saint Francis on Sept. 3, there's plenty left to address but also some in which to take comfort.
Here's what we learned from 15 practices over a month this spring:
There's a strong No. 1 QB -- for now.
The coaches like the continued progression of their incumbent starter and Brady Gustafson even walks and talks with an added swagger this spring.
"He's got a full year in the system now, a lot of game experience last year, and he's playing with a very high level of confidence now," quarterbacks coach Andrew Selle said.
But the race behind him is heating up. Senior Chad Chalich is a year more experienced as well and junior transfer Reese Phillips has thrown some of the best balls this spring. If Phillips can start reading the pass rush like he's been seeing coverages, the former Kentucky QB could give Gustafson a run in the fall.
The receivers will be fine.
Sure Gustafson is still around, but among the biggest unknowns this spring was who he'll be targeting come fall.
The slot Z receivers -- sophomore Caleb Lyons and redshirt freshman Jerry Louie-McGee -- made a show of volunteering more so than any others. Lyons caught six passes for 111 yards in Saturday's final spring game, Louie-McGee one-upping his 109-yard day from last week's scrimmage with 175 on six grabs in the finale.
Redshirt freshman Kobey Eaton showed promise with some long catches -- he had 107 yards in the second scrimmage -- as did sophomore Keenan Curran, though he was slowed by a hamstring at times this spring. Junior James Homan, a transfer, also proved his merit on the outside and the group will get help from Nebraska graduate transfer Lane Hovey this summer.
The prevalence of a few too many drops, trouble that tends to follow a young unit, is among the receivers' main faults at this point
There's a lot of weapons at running back.
Senior John Nguyen was the assumed starter in the backfield, but junior Treshawn Favors is giving him a run for the spot. Stitt likes to rotate his backs to keep them fresh, so one certainly won't squeeze the other out, but Favors should demand more carries this fall.
He ran for 122 yards on just 12 carries in the final two scrimmages, his improved pass-blocking ability garnering him more snaps. Nguyen also piled up yards -- 70 in the second scrimmage -- but didn't show the breakaway speed that Favors has.
Sophomore Jeremy Calhoun, who is looking to expand from his goal-line back role from last year, adds another dynamic along with a possible return of injured senior power back Joey Counts.
"Our running backs are now sticking their foot in the ground and getting up the field," Stitt said. "They're stronger and more powerful than last spring."
The offensive line should be much improved.
At least the starting unit anyway.
Four of five starters are back and senior center Ben Weyer will likely relieve junior Robert Luke, who filled in for him because of injury last year, come fall. That gives the Griz four good options on the interior, along with senior guards Devon Dietrich and McCauley Todd, to go with a three-year starter at tackle in junior David Reese.
"A lot of them put on more weight, kept it on and are feeling good," Gustafson said. "They're just boys up there. They're really getting after it and it's great to see them succeed."
The secondary unit has had its struggles in scrimmages, getting victimized by the pass rush especially. The backup tackles haven't put up much fight against even the second-string D-line.
The defense hasn't missed a beat.
Despite a whole new linebacking corps and defensive line, not to mention a new coordinator in Jason Semore, the defense looks determined not to take a step back in 2016.
The D tallied 29 sacks in three spring scrimmages and forced at least one turnover in each. Like the receivers, a young linebacking group showed tremendous upside. And that was even while playing without expected starting MLB Connor Strahm, a junior who was on the mend following offseason shoulder surgery.
"Defensively everyone said, 'You graduated all this talent, how are you gonna be?'" Stitt recalled. "Our guys stepped up. We're gonna be very good on defense."
Junior James Banks, a transfer, paired well with sophomore Josh Buss at the outside linebacking spots while redshirt freshman Vika Fa'atuiese manned the middle. Reserves like Dante Olson and Cy Sirmon, two more redshirt freshmen, weren't far behind in terms of athleticism and production.
The Griz can still sack the QB.
Though Stitt has acknowledged the defense won't be as enamored with sacks this season, that doesn't mean they can't pile them up at times.
Seniors Caleb Kidder and Ryan Johnson have been dangerous off the end in pass rush, though the most intriguing prospect has been junior Tucker Schye. The DE accumulated eights sacks in just three scrimmages and may force the coaches to find more playing time for him this fall.
The D-line was an exercise in camouflage this spring, rotating several different fronts and using Kidder at end and inside at nose tackle. At times during Saturday's spring game, all 11 defenders were standing with none of the linemen down in a rushing stance. The movement made it difficult for the offense to determine who was rushing and who was dropping back into a zone coverage.
The defensive secondary is still up in the air.
Cornerback JR Nelson and safety Yamen Sanders, both seniors, are locks to start, but the other positions are still wide open.
The safeties will get some help from incoming transfer Justin Strong, a junior, from Oregon State, and he'll battle it out with up-and-comer Josh Sandry. The Bigfork native is still learning the coverages but his unbridled hustle has impressed this spring.
Twice on Saturday, the redshirt freshman made touchdown-saving tackles from behind, including chasing down WR Homan after a 40-yard gain and executing a textbook strip tackle to force and recover a fumble. The week before Sandry took a perfect angle to cut off a would-be touchdown run by RB Nguyen at the corner, closing the gap with his speed to make a tackle at the 1-yard line.
Sophomore CB Markell Sanders is in line to start opposite Nelson, but the Griz are very light on depth beyond that. Stitt has indicated he may address the problem this summer with a possible transfer.
The kicking game is ... a work in progress.
A carousel of kickers missed three field goals and two extra points in Saturday's spring game and while soggy conditions may have contributed to that, it's still a position group that makes Stitt very uncomfortable.
"That's something we went through spring ball and never really found a guy to get it done," he said "We thought during times in spring that we found that guy, but (Saturday) we didn't show it."
The race for punter appears to be between sophomore Eric Williams, a Loyola Sacred Heart grad, and redshirt freshman Patrick LeCorre. Williams averaged 39.7 yards per punt while LeCorre was at 39.3 on seven and six punts, respectively, Saturday. LeCorre was a bit more consistent, all his boots between 34 and 45 yards, while Williams had the bigger swings. He bombed a 52-yarder, but also shanked one for 19.