MISSOULA, Montana — Before one fall camp practice last August, Bobby Hauck did not bite his tongue when analyzing his team. When asked what he liked about his team on that particularly hot, arid day in the middle of Montana’s preparation for the 2018 season, Hauck simply quipped “Absolutely nothing.”
A year later, with a bizarre season sparked by a torrid 4-1 start and finished by a trio of heartbreaking losses behind them, Hauck and his team are more optimistic about the 2019 Grizzlies.
“You’re asking a football coach so I think we need to improve on everything,” Hauck said with a grin following a practice postponed by lightning last week. “But I like where we are. We are progressing on the right curve in terms of getting ready for the opener.”
As Hauck enters the second season of his second stint as the head coach for the Grizzlies — he led his alma mater to seven straight Big Sky Conference titles between 2003 and 2009 — Montana has improved its young talent and depth across its roster.
Hauck held no punches in addressing the weaknesses of the offensive line, the defensive secondary and the overall lack of depth at linebacker entering last season. Those weaknesses showed up early and often during a 6-5 campaign that saw Montana lose three straight home games for the first time in the history of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana struggled to convert short-yardage situations. The Griz struggled to protect quarterback Dalton Sneed, a junior that still managed to earn Big Sky Newcomer of the Year honors. And UM struggled to close games, evidence in blowing a 21-3 third quarter lead in a 49-21 loss to UC Davis and blowing a 22-7 lead in a 29-25 loss to rival Montana State that ensured the Griz would miss the playoffs for the third straight season.
If Montana is to capture the success that once defined the program, a collection of players recruited and developed by Hauck and his staff will likely play a key role. The Griz have added 15 transfers over the last two years, including eight new players new to this year’s roster. That number grew by one on Tuesday with the official addition of graduate transfer cornerback Keynan Foster, a former UTEP wide receiver who caught 21 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns over the last two seasons in El Paso.
The newest set of transfers also includes junior college offensive linemen Kordell Pillans (6-foot-6, 333 pounds) and Moses Mallory (6-3, 360), a pair of physically formidable interior players expected to compete for starting positions.
While those two add significant bulk to the Montana offensive line, at least five returning Griz up front lost weight during the off-season. It’s a by-product of Hauck’s prioritization on athleticism over mass when it comes to the UM offensive front.
“You almost have to get out of the mindset where guys are trying to gain,” Hauck said. “All the high school kids think they need to be 300 plus. Most of the time when they come in and they are 330 and 335, they are not fit. We have to be able to be fit enough to knock people around and move around and compete.”
Junior Dylan Eickmeyer, a starter for part of last season, lost 11 pounds to get down to 290. Redshirt freshman Tyler Ganoung lost 16 pounds to check in at 320. Redshirt freshman Sean Andersen lost 17 pounds to come in at 301. Redshirt freshman Cody Kanouse is down 17 pounds to 318.
And fifth-year senior Angel Villanueva is down to 301 pounds, a loss of 23 pounds according to his weight on last year’s roster but a loss of more like 40 pounds according to his head coach.
“We want him to increase his level of play,” Hauck said of Villanueva, a starter for his first two seasons at Montana before battling injuries last season. “He is down about 40 pounds, which is helping him. It’s a big fall camp for him.”
The newest set of transfers also includes a trio of edge rushers: Joe Babros, a 6-foot-4, 255-pound junior from North Carolina State; Mason Vinyard, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound junior from Washington State; and Ryder Rice, a 6-foot-6, 215-pounder graduate transfer from Rocky Mountain College who played his prep football for the Class C 6-man Savage Heat.
“Our young guys are faster than our veteran guys were last year,” Hauck said when asked about his team’s ability to get pressure off the edge defensively. “There’s two parts of the game: run game and pass game. You have to be able to stop both. The better those guys play, the better we will be at defense.”
During the Grizzlies’ heyday, a seemingly endless line of intimidating, high-motor defense ends made Montana’s pass rush the stuff of Big Sky legend. From Andy Petek to Tim Bush to Kroy Biermann to Mike Murphy, sacks were prevalent and crucial to Montana’s success.
Last season, Jed Nagler, a converted wide receiver, had Montana’s only sack by a player playing defensive end or on the edge of the defensive front.
“Mike Murphy, Kroy Biermann won a whole bunch,” Hauck said before his team’s second practice of this fall camp. “If you are a good pass rusher and you get singled up, you have to win a percentage of the time. That’s what it is. You have to be able to win one-on-one matchups. We have to learn how to do that.”
“Quarterbacks are running a lot more, nobody takes the ball from the center and does a seven-step drop anymore. Things have changed so much across the board. What would you say is the most important position on the offensive line? It doesn’t matter anymore. There is no blind-side on the deep drop any more.
“The ball gets out quick. You can still knock it down and make them make bad throws. This goes back 25 years with the advent of the quick game, the three-step drop. Sack numbers depends on how many teams drop back and how they are going to throw it. Regardless, we have to figure out how to win.”
Position battles continue to rage across the roster. Foster, Hawaii transfer Mykal Tolliver and true freshmen Corbin Walker and Trevin Gradney are all in the mix to push returning starting cornerbacks Justin Calhoun and Dareon Nash. Redshirt freshman Alex Gubner and sophomores Eli Alford and Braydon Deming are battling for playing time on Montana’s interior defensive line.
Carrying the momentum from a strong spring, former grayshirt outside linebacker Cole Grossman continues to get repetitions at UM’s standup outside linebacker/end hybrid position. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was originally recruited to Montana as a wide receiver.
“We need defensive players in this program too,” Hauck said on August 15 with a chuckle. “He has some athleticism there. I thought he had a nice spring for a guy just starting. He’s physically immature but he has some aptitude. He has some want to. For all the freshmen, they are going to excel at the physical part of the game quicker than the mental part of it.”
Redshirt freshmen running back Drew Turner, quarterback Garrett Graves, safety Nash Fouch, defensive end Milton Mamula and former grayshirt linebacker Braxton Hill are among the other Grizzlies with chances to break onto the two-deep depth chart if they continue to perform well.
Those position battles continue Montana’s fall camp with practices slated for Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning before a Friday closed parctoce. Saturday’s practice is also closed. The Griz will wrap up fall camp with a session in Washington-Grizzly Stadium on August and a pair of practices at the Riverbowl the following two days.
“We pour over the film – every play in practice is filmed and we pour over that at night and then again in the morning,” Hauck said when asked about position battles. “The depth chart changes daily. We will figure it out when it’s time. I don’t think you force anything. Sometimes, that means guys are playing up and down but we don’t mind that. We like playing into the depth. And now, we have a little bit of (depth) compared to last year.
Remaining Fall Camp Schedule
Wednesday, Aug. 21: Practice 14
Thursday, Aug. 22: Practice 15 (10:30 a.m. -12:30 p.m.)
Friday, Aug. 23: Closed Practice / Great Griz Encounter
Saturday, Aug. 24: Closed Practice
Sunday, Aug. 25: OFF
Monday, Aug. 26: Practice 18 (Washington-Grizzly Stadium)
Tuesday, Aug. 27: Practice 19 (Riverbowl)
Wednesday, Aug. 28: Practice 20 (Riverbowl)
Thursday, Aug. 29: Closed Practice
Friday, Aug. 30: Travel
Saturday, Aug. 31: vs South Dakota, 1 p.m. (MT) on ABC Montana.
** Schedule subject to change
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.