Reese Phillips, Brady Gustafson

Quarterbacks Reese Phillips (12) and Brady Gustafson warm up before Montana’s first spring scrimmage in 2016.

TOMMY MARTINO/Missoulian

As fans and recruits alike mingled on the field after Saturday's second spring football scrimmage, highlights from Montana's 2015 season flicked onto the Jumbotron screen and echoed through the near-empty Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The booming soundtrack stopped conversations and media interviews mid-sentence, and transfer quarterback Reese Phillips craned his neck to see the source of the excitement. A fan-led call-and-answer chorus of "Montana Grizzlies," a familiar accompaniment for any who has attended a Griz game in recent memory, played over the top of UM's best runs and passes.

"Whoa, that's pretty loud," said a wide-eyed Phillips, who has yet to don the maroon and silver in a real game since coming to Missoula from the University of Kentucky in January.

The way things are going this spring, he'll be hearing the stadium's hallmark chant from the sidelines this fall. Brought in by head coach Bob Stitt this offseason to provide QB depth and challenge incumbent starter Brady Gustafson, neither Phillips nor the cast of returners has yet approached Gustafson's level of consistency and poise.

Not that that's a bad thing, Stitt said.

"We feel like Brady's our guy, but he's got to continue to perform and grow as a quarterback from where he was last year," the coach said. "... It's gonna be tough to beat Brady out. We hope he plays so well that it doesn't happen, because if he does (remain the starter), we're gonna have a great quarterback on our hands."

Through two scrimmages and three of spring ball's four weeks of practices, Gustafson continues to have a strong lead for No. 1 QB. The senior has completed better than 70 percent of his passes (24 of 34) in those scrimmages for 209 yards and a touchdown. He's the only quarterback without an interception.

Chad Chalich, another senior who started three games in 2015 in place of an injured Gustafson, has passed for 235 yards with the help of a pair of long touchdowns and is 18 for 28. Phillips is 19 for 34 for 189 and a score.

The differences may not be huge statistically, but Gustafson's ability to play within Stitt's system is what's put him so far ahead, said quarterbacks coach Andrew Selle.

"The other guys are still making great plays, but they don't see things as quickly as Brady," Selle said. "We've said all along that's what separates Brady. That's what separated him last spring and last fall as well."

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Gustafson thew for just under 2,000 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, his first as a starter, but the 2015 season proved the need for capable backup help. The Griz were forced to employ three passers, each of whom started at least three games, because of rampant injuries.

That's where Phillips's addition comes into play, Stitt said. He'll continue to progress during the offseason and next fall to give Montana options.

Just in case.

Things are still a little green right now with Philips adapting to Stitt's system and having missed most of 2015 with an Achilles tendon injury the previous March. He was Kentucky's holder on special teams for the second half of the season.

The transition period has the QB a step slow in reading defenses, especially when facing pressure. Six of the defense's 10 sacks during Saturday's scrimmage came against Phillips.

"He's got a great arm, can make all the throws, but he's just got to get the timing down," Stitt said. "... He's just got to get back, get the ball out of his hands just a count quicker."

Some of that is on the second-string offensive line he's taken most of his snaps behind, Stitt acknowledged. The amount Phillips is being asked to do this spring is also considerably more than what Gustafson and Chalich were tossed into at the start of Stitt's first season.

But Phillips wouldn't be in Missoula if he didn't think he had a chance to not only compete for the job, but win it. The native of Chattanooga, Tennessee can run like Chalich and can throw deep like Gustafson.

"This is what I wanted to do. I could have gone somewhere where I didn't have to compete," Phillips said. "This is a good team and I wanted to be on a good team."

Right now, though, he's in a dead heat with Chalich for the No. 2 spot. Stitt hopes to see something from one or the other this weekend during Montana's annual spring game to separate the two.

"Chad and Reese were good, not exactly what we wanted, but very close," Stitt said of last week's scrimmage. "The backup picture didn't clear up any after Saturday."

The Griz practice again Wednesday and Friday before wrapping up spring drills with the annual spring game. Admission is $5 with tickets available at the Adams Center box office and GSA office. Call 243-6481 for more information.

Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. Saturday.

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