Griz players

The Montana Grizzlies thank the crowd in Helena with the traditional singing of "Up With Montana" after last Saturday's scrimmage.

Montana head football coach Bob Stitt walked away from the Grizzlies' end-of-spring scrimmage back in April feeling satisfied with the work his unit had put in over its spring sessions.

They had benchmarks and goals and the transitioning Griz met or drew near most of them. This week begins the push for a whole new set of objectives for the Montana football team. They'll need to meet all, not most, of their fall goals to be ready for Week 1.

North Dakota State lingers less than four weeks away now.

The Grizzlies begin fall practices at 9 a.m. Tuesday inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the site of their opening-day clash with the four-time defending FCS national champion Bison on Aug. 29. Tuesday is also the first of a string of 12 straight days of practices to start UM camp.

Don't think that's not by design.

"It's just picking up where we left off," said Stitt, imploring his Grizzlies to maintain their progress from March and April. "We had a lot of good stuff in spring.

"I hope through the player-run practices that our kids moved forward and we're not having to knock the rust off and take a couple steps back to re-teach stuff."

Stitt's access to players over the summer, largely locked-out per NCAA regulations, leaves the players' ambition as the driving force. That and strength and conditioning coach Matt Nicholson's supervised workouts.

So Stitt is excited to see where his players are after eight weeks of voluntary, yet suggested, work.

"I wasn't part of it at all ... which I like," he said. "I like our quarterbacks to take charge of that and run it, take ownership. This summer was a kind of chance for them to be the coach."


One of the biggest story lines during fall camp, which will feature three scrimmages on Aug. 10, Aug. 15 and Aug. 20, surrounds that quarterback position.

Brady Gustafson latched hold of the first-string spot from Day 1 and although Stitt has not made a decision about who his opening-week QB will be, the job seems to be Gustafson's to lose.

A quarterback crew of five others, down from seven total in spring, still might have something to say about that, though.

Whoever emerges as starter, they'll have a plethora of wide receivers to catch their passes. As practices begin, Montana lists 19 WRs on its roster. That number will graduate to a round 20 when Missoula native Ben Roberts, a late transfer from Washington State's baseball program, enters the fray.

His paperwork was completed over the weekend and he's cleared to join the team.

"We added a little more depth, changing things on the offensive side," Stitt said of his many post-signing day acquisitions. "Our personnel wasn't perfect for the type of offense that we installed."

The further development of Montana's offensive line will also be key, with three of five starters off last year's team back and the return of 2013 starting offensive tackle John Schmaing.

In all the Griz have as many as 19 players back with starting experience, including two players who missed most or all of 2014 in Schmaing (academics) and WR Ellis Henderson (illness).

The defense up front will be led by senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes and newly anointed No. 37 Caleb Kidder at defensive tackle. In between are some question marks, especially once you get to the bench having lost last year's Big Sky Conference defensive MVP Zack Wagenmann and his DT Tonga Takai.

Montana will need a few of their historical reserves to play as more than that this year.

"I think there's a group of guys that have been in the program now a couple years and they do have something to prove," defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. "I believe in them, in that group."

Gregorak highlighted converts like former linebacker Tucker Schye (D-end), former fullback Jamal Wilson (DT) and former tight end Mike Ralston (D-end) in that category.

Montana's linebacking corps is a given, returning starters Kendrick Van Ackeren, Jeremiah Kose and Herbert Gamboa, and should lead from the middle as long as all three remain on the field. The secondary will have to answer its own questions, though, while breaking in new players and addressing overall health.

Senior starters Nate Harris (cornerback) and Justin Whitted (strong safety) missed most or all of spring drills recovering from injuries. Their spots in the starting lineup will be challenged by newcomers like freshman CB Manu Rasmussen -- who Gregorak confirmed is eligible and on the team despite rumors otherwise -- and transfers Markell Sanders (CB) and Yamen Sanders (safety).

Gregorak is very high on Yamen Sanders, who came over from Arizona in June.

"When you see Yamen Sanders, you're like, 'Whoa, that's what they look like,'" Gregorak said of the 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior safety's athletic stature. "I mean he's beautiful. He's gonna help us right away in some fashion."

The Griz will meet on the field 22 total times between practices and scrimmages this fall before North Dakota State comes to town. That game, an expected sellout with potential record-breaking crowds, will air nationally on ESPN as part of the network's FCS Kickoff.

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