With Montana navigating its third fall camp under head coach Bob Stitt, Skyline Sports will break down UM’s roster by highlighting prominent battles for playing time in various position group.
TODAY’S POSITION: Quarterback
The players: Reese Phillips (a 6-foot-2, 212-pound senior); Gresch Jensen (a 6-2, 218-pound redshirt freshman); and Caleb Hill (a 6-4, 215-pound junior).
What’s at stake: For the first time in the Bob Stitt era, Montana has a heated quarterback competition playing out during the months, weeks and days leading up to the 2017 season.
When Stitt first took over before the 2015 season, he opened up the job but Brady Gustafson quickly rose to the top depth chart. Unless he was injured, he was hardly challenged by Chad Chalich, Eric Prater, Makena Simis, or before last season, Phillips for his starting job.
Since Gustafson played his final game, a home loss to Montana State to cap a swift and surprise fall from grace for the Griz, the quarterback competition has been competitive. Phillips, an FBS transfer from Kentucky brought in to push Gustafson before last season, Hill, a junior college transfer who joined the team in January, and Jensen, the prized prep quarterback recruit brought in by Stitt thus far have all shown flashes positive and negative over the last eight-plus months.
With Montana’s season-opener two weeks from Saturday, the battle is gaining more clarity but remains undecided. For a team that wants to operate at a break-neck pace and throw the ball as often as Stitt’s Grizzlies want, finding a solid answer behind the center will be the most crucial factor if Montana hopes to rectify last season’s 6-5 finish.
How they fared in 2016: Phillips joined the Griz in January of 2016 with the intention of overtaking Gustafson. Instead, he served as UM’s third-string quarterback, playing sparingly in mop-up duty in a pair of Montana 60-point wins. He threw 15 passes, completing eight for a total of 50 yards and a long of 13. Five of those eight competitions came in UM’s 68-7 win over Mississippi Valley State.
Phillips completed 15-of-27 passes for 140 yards but threw four interceptions in the spring game in Butte. He threw for 188 yards and two touchdowns but also threw a pick-6 and fumbled in UM’s first fall scrimmage. At Kentucky, he appeared in four games.
Jensen spent last fall as a redshirt learning Stitt’s system and thriving in the classroom. He was a finalist for the 2016 National Football Foundation National High School Scholar-Athlete Award, recognizing the nation’s top academic college freshmen. The Auburn (Washington) Mountainview High product threw for 108 yards, including a 53-yard completion, during Montana’s spring game.
Hill spent last season at Blinn Junior College in Texas. He earned honorable mention All-Southwest Junior College Football Conference honors and earned a No. 13 ranking nationally among JC quarterbacks by throwing for 872 yards and five touchdowns despite playing in just six games. In 2015, Hill played in eight games, completing 52 percent of his passes for 814 yards and six touchdowns.
In the spring game, Hill performed the best of the three, completing 15-of-27 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns.
The case for Phillips: Phillips is the most experienced of the three players. He has the strongest arm, the best composure and the most natural leadership qualities of Montana’s quarterbacks.
Stitt has talked frequently about how he is marginally ahead in the competition since the end of spring ball and through the first 10 days of fall camp. Phillips completed 17-of-25 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns in the first scrimmage of fall camp.
But Phillips has a propensity for throwing into tight spots. His interception total in the spring game plus a few near-interceptions in Monday’s showing is the downfall of his arms strength.
“It takes reps and it’s something where games will help but our defense is really good, too and that’s part of it,” Phillips said on the first day of fall camp. “It’s something I have to work on. Maybe I trust everything too much but that’s something I’ll work on and with more reps, it will come.”
If Phillips can manage his risk taking, he will win the job.
The case for Jensen: Jensen is Stitt’s most heralded prep quarterback recruit, although that might change with JSerra Catholic (California) 3-star quarterback Matt Robinson set to sign with Montana in February.
Regardless, Jensen has been touted as the most cerebral of the three quarterbacks. He has a good grasp of the system and distributes the ball well but he overthinks things on occasion as well. If he can expedite his decision making, he can remain in the competition. But with two older players, he might be a year or more away.
The case for Hill: The coaching staff have lauded the off-season training efforts of the Griz in the off-season across the board. Many players saw tremendous physical gains. Most of them played high-contact positions. However, Hill was among the biggest gainers in terms of weight, something he says is by design.
“For me, I want to be around 230 when I leave here because 6-5, 230 seems like a good NFL quarterback size,” Hill said. “You can’t get there then. You have to start now. That 10 pounds, it’s definitely all muscle.”
Hill is the biggest and most mobile of the three quarterbacks. But he’s also been in the system for the least amount of time. During the scrimmage, Hill threw for 74 yards and a touchdown but also looked flustered in the pocket at times. Part of that was playing behind a second-team offensive line featuring four redshirt freshmen.
A performance reminiscent of the spring game in Butte during Saturday morning’s scrimmage is needed for Hill to keep pace.
What they must accomplish during fall camp: Stitt wants a quarterback he can prepare thoroughly and build a game plan around, so the earlier the decision can be made, the better. Phillips is a few steps ahead but could take a giant stride with a solid performance on Saturday. If he doesn’t continue distancing himself, the competition could rage on with the Grizzlies’ season opener two weeks away.
Also on the roster: Tanner Wilson (6-2, 195-pound true freshman) and Nate Dick (5-10, 188-pound true freshman).
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.