Elevated Expectations

ELEVATED EXPECTATIONS: Simpson trying to crack Griz receiver rotation

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Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in Skyline Sports’ ELEVATED EXPECTATIONS series profiling Griz football player who are likely to see elevated roles this season for Montana. 

Put together, Sammy Akem (6-4, 210) and Ryan Simpson (6-6, 210) are nearly 13 feet and barely 400 pounds worth of wide receiver.

If they weren’t playing football, they’d look just as natural running up and down the wings on the basketball court, or perhaps working at Albertson’s helping people grab things off the top shelf, no stepladder needed.

Being six-and-a-half feet tall with the approximate catch radius of a Transformer comes with nearly unlimited potential. If a tall receiver has all the other tools – speed, hands, route running – he can become impossible to cover.

But that often comes with a much steeper developmental curve. The plan for all long, lanky receivers starts with the same bullet point: get stronger.

Akem, who was listed at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds when he joined Montana from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in 2016, spent hours in the weight room before breaking out as a redshirt sophomore in 2018 with 13 touchdown catches.

In those first two years of his career, the most common post-practice sight at an emptying Washington-Grizzly Stadium was Akem catching balls off the Jugs machine to try to fix a nagging problem with drops.

“Sammy is a workhorse for sure,” Simpson said. “All the younger guys can look up to him, at his work ethic. … We’re like the same build, so as a freshman, just getting to watch Sammy right off the bat and getting to learn from him really helps me a ton.”

Akem was a second-team all-Big Sky selection in both 2018 and 2019, and has picked up numerous All-America honors heading into 2021.

Simpson has the same kind of potential, which comes from both his frame and his athletic background.

He was first-team all-state in football as a senior in 2018, the same year he helped Bozeman win a Class AA state title in basketball.

Bozeman High wide receiver Ryan Simpson/ courtesy of Simpson

Montana State, where his dad went to school, offered him for football, and Mick Durham at MSU-Billings reached out with a basketball offer. Simpson was a Bozeman kid who’d been playing basketball his whole life, and here he had two choices — play football for his hometown team, or chase his hoop dreams.

He chose a third option.

“Growing up, I was always a basketball guy,” Simpson said. “I started playing receiver as a freshman in high school. And since then, I just loved football, and then definitely did not think I was gonna make it over the hill. But I mean, I love it here, and I’m glad I made that decision.”

Simpson’s commitment, along with that of Bozeman quarterback Kris Brown in the same class, was a big win for the Griz and Bobby Hauck, a statement of intent that they would compete with Montana State in recruiting as well as on the field. Brown, like Simpson, is now in the mix for a starting job as a redshirt freshman.

Montana quarterback Kris Brown, pictured here against Portland State/ by Brooks Nuanez

“Kris is a dog. He’s a stud, definitely, and him being behind (senior) Cam (Humphrey), Kris gets to look off him, and Kris has improved a lot since we came here,” Simpson said. “We both definitely just look at the people in front of us.”

Simpson was listed at 185 pounds when he came out of high school. After two years in a college weight room, he’s now up to 210, a gain similar to Akem in his first two years at Montana.

He had three catches for 75 yards in blowouts of Central Washington and Portland State in the spring, making him Montana’s third-leading receiver in the two-game spring season.

https://twitter.com/MontanaGrizFB/status/1383480363649961989

There’s plenty of opportunity at wide receiver this fall as the Griz try to replace Samori Toure, who set school records for catches and receiving yards in 2019 before transferring to Nebraska (and who was, once upon a time, an Elevated Expectations profile himself once upon a time).

Akem and redshirt junior Mitch Roberts should have the starting spots locked down as the outside wide receivers, with junior Gabe Sulser as the slot receiver.

But Simpson is definitely part of the group, along with junior Malik Flowers and redshirt freshman Keelan White, pushing for playing time behind Akem and Roberts.

Ryan Simpson

“If you know anything about our receiver room, there’s been guys waiting, working,” Akem said. “It starts with the work the older guys put in and the younger guys latch on to that. It’s just infectious. We all just want to make plays, we all just want to be the next guy on the field. That’s just what we do.”

“Sammy and Mitch are definitely at the top,” Simpson said. “They’re studs, and it’s awesome to learn from them. But I think me and Malik will definitely be at the twos, getting a lot of reps behind them.”

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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