MISSOULA — For the first time in the Bob Stitt era, the Montana Grizzlies have a quarterback battle.
Stitt came to Montana from Colorado School of Mines, where he used one of Division II’s most complex offenses to put up prolific passing numbers. At times during Stitt’s first two seasons in Missoula, Montana’s passing offense has looked innovative and intimidating. Other times, it’s looked inconsistent and pedestrian.
When the Grizzlies have clicked under Stitt’s play calling, the results have been impressive. Montana defeated four-time defending national champion North Dakota State 38-35 in Stitt’s first game at the helm thanks in large part to former Griz quarterback Brady Gustafson’s ability to connect on deep passes over the top of NDSU’s defense.
Montana’s up-tempo, rhythm-based offense looked indefensible in back-to-back wins over rivals Eastern Washington and Montana State to end the 2015 regular season. The offense again clicked on all cylinders in wins over No. 24 Southern Utah (43-20), Mississippi Valley State (67-7) and Sacramento State (68-7) last fall. A 62-point effort in an 18-point win over Idaho State would serve as Montana’s only win in its last five games however as the Grizzlies limped to the finish line in Stitt’s second season.
At his best, Gustafson was good enough to get significant NFL hype. But he also floundered at times, failing to make the throws necessary to keep Stitt’s spread offense humming at a proper pace. Still, the 6-foot-7 Billings native earned a rookie mini-camp tryout with the Chicago Bears.
Offensively, Montana returns most of its key personnel from a unit that averaged 39.5 points and 482.2 yards per game last season, including 326.5 yards per game through the air, fifth in the FCS. Junior Jeremy Calhoun will anchor the UM running backs while Montana’s three top pass catchers — sophomores Jerry Louie-McGee and Justin Calhoun and junior Keenan Curran — return. An intriguing group of redshirt freshman wide receivers — Samuel Akem, Brennan Corbin and Samori Toure — could also be in the mix for a group that could rotate as many as 10 Griz, wide receivers coach Mike Ferriter said in the off-season.
The H-receiver position features steady performers Josh Horner and Colin Bingham plus converted quarterback Makena Simis. The offensive line has the potential to start four seniors — left tackle David Reese, center Cooper Sprunk, right guard Robert Luke, right tackle Mike Ralston — for a position group Stitt calls Montana’s most improved.
Therefore, from an offensive standpoint at least, the quarterback battle that begins with Montana’s first day of fall camp on August 8 is the most crucial if the Griz hope to return to the playoffs for the 22nd time in 25 seasons.
“What I like is we have three guys and all three of them can do it,” Stitt said at the Big Sky Kickoff in Park City, Utah in July. “In every scrimmage in the spring game, one of them shined.”
Senior Reese Phillips, an FBS transfer from Kentucky who joined Montana before last season with the hope he would push Gustafson, is the oldest of the group. Stitt likes that the strong-armed Phillips has “played in big games, in big venues in the SEC.
“I feel like he’s the guy to beat,” Stitt said. “He has to continue to keep competing but he can be the guy starting the season. He’s got to play well every day to keep it. But I feel like he’s a guy that we have to get ready to go.
“Reese has the upper hand because he’s been in the system,” Stitt continued. “As much as we do with the quarterback, him understanding it, it just clicks for him. The difference between him last spring and this spring is night and day.”
Phillips will be challenged by left-handed junior college transfer Caleb Hill and redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen. Hill, the most mobile and athletic of the three, earned the designation as one of the top JC quarterbacks in the country at Blinn Junior College in Texas last fall. The 6-foot-4, 205 pounder threw for 872 yards and five touchdowns in six games before suffering an injury.
Jenson was a three-year starter at Auburn Mountainview right outside Seattle. He threw for 7.963 yards and 73 touchdowns while rushing for 1,485 yards and 19 scores during his prep career.
“Caleb is very, very athletic,” Stitt said. “He has a strong arm and can really run, a tall guy. Gresch is a guy who is always going to be prepared. He can make the throws but he is going to be overly prepared and I love that about him.
“Caleb and Gresch are really capable guys. The door is always open. Somebody else can move in and take that position but Reese will enter fall camp as the starter.”
Last season’s Grizzlies defense featured a collection of talent but, like the offense, was wildly inconsistent, particularly when it came to playing situational football.
UM lead the Big Sky Conference in total defense (349.8 yards per game) thanks in large part to giving up 199.8 yards passing, the second-best total in the league. Montana’s 28 sacks ranked second to EWU’s 35 and UM was the only Big Sky team to give up less than 200 (186) first downs. Montana allowed opponents to convert just 27.2 percent of their third downs, also a league-leading total.
But the Griz defense was susceptible to big plays all season, like the 74-yard touchdown William Morehand scored to stake Northern Arizona to a 7-0 lead in what would become a 45-34 win in Flagstaff. Or like the 69-yard first-quarter touchdown caught by EWU legend Cooper Kupp in what would become a 35-16 Eastern victory. Or like the 58-yard touchdown on the fourth play of the game by Hakeem Deggs in Northern Colorado’s 28-25 win over UM, UNC’s first over the Griz as a Division I member.
That Griz defense loses end Caleb Kidder, who is now with the New England Patriots and cornerback J.R. Nelson, who is now in training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs. Safety Yamen Sanders received a rookie mini-camp tryout with the Oakland Raiders.
Talented safeties senior Justin Strong and sophomore Josh Sandry return, as do tested cornerbacks Markell Sanders and Ryan McKinley. The linebackers, a group that includes All-Big Sky selections Josh Buss and Connor Strahm, return in tact as well, although Strahm will likely serve an early-season suspension for an off-season DUI.
Montana will have to replace Kidder and All-Big Sky defensive end Ryan Johnson, but senior end Tucker Schye, sophomore tackle Jesse Sims and senior nose tackle Brandt Davidson have all played extensive snaps in second-year coordinator Jason Semore’s defense.
“As a coordinator, when you look at the depth chart, and you know you’ve got certain guys that can produce for you on Saturdays, it allows you to do some more things defensively,” Semore said in a UM press release. “So, we’re excited about that.”
Despite the loss of two All-Big Sky ends, Montana’s defensive line should be a strength. That starts with Schye, a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder who came from Malta to Missoula as a middle linebacker. Now he’s expected to be the next great Montana defensive end, following behind most recently Kidder, Tyrone Holmes and Zack Wagenmann.
Like Kidder and Wagenmann, Schye is wearing No. 37, Montana’s famed jersey passed down from one in-state standout defensive player to the next. Despite waiting his turn behind a group of talented players, Schye produced as a junior, notching seven tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hurries.
This season, playing opposite Leo end Chris Favoroso, a transfer from Arizona Western, Schye will get an elevated opportunity to make plays.
“He understands his leadership role, especially wearing number 37. He’s willing to go out and prove that he represents what that number means to the state of Montana,” UM defensive line coach Brian Hendricks said in a UM press release.
“He’s wired the right way. He’s very competitive and does not like to lose. That’s what you want, a tough dude. To me, that says Montana.”
Kidder carved out a reputation as the best defensive tackle in the Big Sky as a junior but struggled playing on the outside as a senior, wilting down the stretch. Stitt does not foresee a similar outcome for the current No. 37.
“I know that Tucker is excited and proud to be No. 37 and that’s a huge thing for a Montana kid but I just want him to do his job,” Stitt said. “I know Tucker is the type of guy who really can handle that.
“We don’t want to put anybody on a pedestal. Every player is the same, every player is just as important as the next and Tucker understands that. He’s a very good leader and he’s a very good teammate and a humble guy. He’s going to handle the role of 37 because our fans can really make a 37 separate from the team. We want him to just be a great Griz football player.”
The addition of Maryland transfer David Shaw (6-5, 310) and Favoroso (6-4, 255) plus the progression of tackles Reggie Tilleman and Randy Rodriguez should make the defensive line as stout as it’s been during Stitt’s tenure.
“Up front is the strength of our defense with Tucker and Chris Favoroso and on the inside, we didn’t have a lot of depth in the past,” Stitt said. “Now you have Brandt Davison, Jessie Sims, you have David Shaw in there, Reggie Tilleman. There’s four guys who are as good as we’ve had in there. It all starts up front. If you are good up front, you are going to have some success.”
Montana officially opens fall camp with its first practice at 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday, August 8.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed