Even more starkly than during spring football, the Montana Grizzlies that had their first practice of fall camp on a hot Missoula Wednesday at Dornblaser Field look like a completely different squad from last year’s edition.
The coach will, of course, will be different, as Bobby Hauck returns to take over on the sidelines for Bob Stitt.
The quarterback will be different too, after incumbent Gresch Jensen transferred over the summer.
And now it’s looking like the Griz will go into the season without defensive stalwart Josh Buss at linebacker, at least to start, after Hauck cast doubt on the prospects of the preseason Defensive MVP returning for the September 1 opener against Northern Iowa.
“No, I’d say [I’m] not particularly optimistic,” Hauck said to a question about Buss’ health. “But I’m no doctor. We’ll see.”
That was the biggest news to come out of a hot first day of fall practice for the Griz, a team coming of a 7-4 season and a missed bid to the FCS playoffs for the second straight year, the first such streak at Montana since the early 1990s.
Buss was named the preseason Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year, among a host of other preseason awards, after recording 94 tackles last year, but sat out all of spring ball after shoulder surgery.Skyline Sports reported that he also tore a pectoral muscle over the summer, and he remained in a blue injury jersey Wednesday. Buss didn’t comment on his injury in a post-practice interview.
Aside from that, not many questions were answered on Wednesday. The Griz officially opened camp Monday, taking care of physicals and administrative work, Hauck said. Tuesday was a teaching day filled with meetings. Wednesday, the Griz began what will be a 19-practice, two-scrimmage slate. Every member of the roster expected to report did except for the departure of redshirt freshman linebacker Carder Key and junior wide receiver Mitch McGlaughlin. Cole Grossman,a tight end from the Portland, Oregon area, is not on the roster to open camp either.
“We think our guys had a great summer and we can pick up where we started,” Hauck said. “It’s good to be back out here with them.
“Less nervous, more excited and as the head coach, really excited. I have a bunch of guys who do all the work and I just stand here and talk to you guys.
Quarterback Dalton Sneed, who was locked in a quarterback competition with Jensen all spring, will now look to fend off junior college transfer Cam Humphrey, former Alabama walk-on Wheeler Harris, and redshirt freshman Tanner Wilson to keep hold of the job.
Humphrey is expected to be his toughest competition. Expect the battle to rage throughout the fall, Hauck said.
“You always have to have players,” Hauck said. “In all of football, college or professional, you better have a couple (quarterbacks). Did you watch the Super Bowl? Nick Foles? Nick Foles is a backup quarterback. That was important. You must have players in your depth.
“In regard to competition, first of all, we will always have competition at every competition here. Always. Every day is a competition. And second, quarterback is the least of our worries.”
Wednesday’s practice was also the first time coaches got to see the new true freshmen on the field with the returning players.
With a new redshirt rule that allows players to play in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility, some of the rookies might see playing time, especially early in the season.
Hauck said he was especially intrigued by receiver Gabe Sulser, Montana’s Gatorade Football Player of the Year in 2017.
Hauck said he is also eager to see the performance of the transfers Montana added, from Humphrey, Sneed and Harris at quarterback to former Arizona safety Gavin Robertson, former Arkansas safety Reid Miller and former Northern Arizona safety Robby Hauck (Bobby’s son). San Diego State transfer running back Adam Eastwood should also fit into the mix with seniors Jeremy Calhoun and Alijah Lee in UM’s backfield.
“We’ve got some guys who need to contribute with some transfers, we are anxious to see them,” Hauck said. “I’m also real anxious to see how far along Gabe Sulser is just because he’s the Montana Gatorade Player of the Year, a local guy and I’m anxious to see him today.
“We don’t really have any thought on (redshirts). None of them are redshirting at this point. They get a chance to compete like everybody else. They start behind, which is innate in their situation with the other guys having had spring ball but nobody is redshirting at this point.”
Other position changes included Justin Calhoun, Jeremy’s redshirt junior twin brother, moving to cornerback from wide receiver. The 5-foot-10, 174-pounder from Long Beach, California caught 80 passes for 1,210 yards and 10 touchdowns over the last two years.
This will be the first fall camp competing at new positions for former wide receiver junior cornerback Koby Eaton, senior quarterback turned tight end Caleb Hill, linebacker turned defensive tackle Cy Sirmon and defensive tackle turned offensive lineman Esai Longoria after each changed positions in the spring.
Other position changes include former wide receiver Jed Nagler now playing defensive end.
Although it didn’t feel like football weather with the temperatures reaching the high 90s, Wednesday’s practice also represented the start of the countdown towards the opener.
With Northern Iowa less than a month away, the intensity was racheted up a notch from spring ball.
“It’s awesome. This is what we live for, this is what we train for,” junior linebacker Dante Olson said. “You go through spring ball, go through summer workouts, workouts year-round, and now it’s time for the season. Getting back out here, we were looking forward to it.”
Andrew Houghton is a freelance sportswriter providing daily coverage of Griz football for Skyline Sports during the 2018 season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.