Analysis

REVITALIZED REPUTATION: Four seniors help Griz solidify offensive line once again

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MISSOULA — An NFL prospect, a four-year contributor who has played a variety of interior positions and a pair of converted tight ends have helped turn a glaring weakness into a position of solidarity for the Montana Grizzlies.

The Griz have consistently produced among the most dominant individual offensive linemen and most powerful offensive line units the Big Sky Conference since the league’s founding in 1963. Through the combination of scholarship reduction, multiple changes in offensive scheme and pure happenstance, Montana’s offensive front suddenly became a deficiency during the first few years of the Bob Stitt era.

Behind the steady play of four-year starter David Reese at left tackle, the improvement of right guard Robert Luke and the acclimation to the unit of center Cooper Sprunk and right tackle Mike Ralston, what was once Montana’s offensive weakness has steadily evolved into a strength behind the play of those four seniors.

Montana offensive line vs North Dakota in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

“I think the world of them because they were the group that improved the most since we were here,” Stitt said on the Big Sky Conference’s weekly coaches’ teleconference last week. “The offensive line was the group that got all the criticism and they took a lot early. A couple guys who moved from tight end, defensive end, that was tough, that wasn’t easy. Then Robert, he starts a bunch of games a couple years ago and didn’t play as much last year.

“The mental toughness of those guys is really high. They are solid as a rock. They are big time leaders. You know what you are going to get out of them with the level of the effort. They are fun guy, great group, great teammates. I can’t say enough about them.”

From Chad Germer to Scott Gragg to Dave Kempfert in the early 1990s to Scott Curry and Thatcher Szalay later in the decade, from future NFL players like Dylan McFarland, Corey Proctor and Cody Balogh in the first part of the 2000s to Colin Dow, J.D. Quinn and Levi Horn to finish up the first decade of the 21st century, a crucial element to Montana’s streak of 17 straight playoff berths rested in the trenches.

The Griz have had some standouts on the offensive front this decade as well — Danny Kistler, Jon Opperud and current Jacksonville Jaguar William Poehls come to mind — but nothing like the dominance that saw 51 Griz offensive linemen land on the Big Sky’s first-team all-conference squad since the founding of the league in 1963.

Montana offensive line coach Chad Germer/by Brooks Nuanez

From 1991 — the senior year of Germer, an All-American center who is now UM’s offensive line coach — until 2011, the last time the Griz won the Big Sky title, Montana landed 27 linemen on the Big Sky’s all-league first team. Since 2012, the year that saw UM’s playoff streak halt at 17, Kistler has been the only Griz to earn first-team honors. No Montana offensive lineman has been a first-team all-conference talent since 2013.

Led by the quartet of seniors, this Montana offensive line has helped reinvigorate the reputation of the unit. UM leads the Big Sky in scoring offense at 35.3 points per game, including 38.9 points per game against FCS opponents. The Griz are averaging a respectable 146.2 yards per game on the ground despite an offense that prioritizes spreading out defenses and stretching the field with the passing game.

“They are a real close group, which is common for offensive linemen to hang in their own circle, but this group is exceptionally tight,” Germer said. “They are close buddies off the field and on the field. Veterans like that who I have been able to work with for a few years, they are beyond the scheme of things and they can work some of the finer stuff. They are all students of the game. They watch NFL film, they watch o-line play. They appreciate the traits of the position.”

The offensive line has also been solid in pass protection, helping Montana roll along offensively despite losing senior Reese Phillips to an early-season ankle injury. In his place, redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen has stayed relatively clean in the pocket. Although Phillips and Jensen — he hit his head on the turf in a loss at Weber State, costing him last week’s game against NAU with a concussion — have gone down with injuries, neither one could be blamed on a lack of protection.

Montana tackle David Reese (76)/by Brooks Nuanez

“They are a tight-knit group and they are selfless,” said sophomore left guard Angel Villanueva, the fifth and only non-senior starter. “They are always looking to help you out or help someone else out. It’s never about them, it’s never about their play. It’s always about how can I help out the person next to me, how can I give my all to know that guy trusts me.”

Reese is the most talented and decorated of the group. The 6-foot-7, 301-pounder from Happy Valley, Oregon will make his 44th consecutive start in his final regular-season home game on Saturday against Northern Colorado.

He earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as a junior left tackle last fall. He was a preseason All-Big Sky selection and an honors candidate entering his final campaign. After spending his first two years at right tackle, he’s developed into a polished blind side tackle. Many believe he will be the next Montana offensive lineman to garner NFL attention once his final season as a Griz ends.

“He’s really athletic and he’s long,” Germer said. “That gives you an advantage playing that position. Through his physical development, he’s a guy who played as a freshman so he had the understanding of the game to do that even though he took his lumps. He had enough general football knowledge to go out and play. His game has mostly developed through (strength) Coach (Matt) Nicholson and the time he has spent in the weight room. That’s the biggest change from past years: How much stronger he is.”

Montana tackle David Reese (76)/by Jason Bacaj

“He passes the eyeball test and he has film so he’ll definitely get a chance to show his stuff to scouts this off-season. He will definitely be somebody who everybody is going to want to get an evaluation on.”

“He’s polished, technical, and just damn good,” Ralston added. “He’s our best lineman.”

Reese’s steadying influence helped the UM coaches have the confidence to start Villanueva at left guard next to the veteran last season. That move has paid off as Villanueva will now be the veteran the Griz rely on to lead a group of fresh faces on the offensive front next season.

“He just knows when it’s time to be nasty, it’s time to be nasty,” Villanueva said of Reese. “It’s time to come show up, prepare mentally, physically and any way possible or else you will go out there and embarrass yourself. At this level, you have so much to represent, especially at the University of Montana. It’s an impressive thing to know a guy like that can turn it on and turn it off.”

Like Reese, Luke broke into the rotation as a true freshman in 2014. He played in 10 games his first year and blocked a field goal against North Dakota.

In Stitt’s first fall camp at the helm, starting center Ben Weyer tore his right ACL. The 6-foot-4, 318-pound Luke has prototype size for a guard but was needed at center. He ended up starting for the duration of the 13-game season. Luke was solid aside from the occasional struggle finding consistency snapping the ball, particularly in the monsoon that nearly washed out UM’s 35-16 loss at Portland State.

“At that position, two or three bad ones is bad,” Germer said. “You snap it 1,000 times and you have a few bad ones, you get tagged as a bad snapper and you can’t do that at that position. As far as the way he played the position, he did a fine job but he’s much more suited for guard. He can be much more direct with his first step, he doesn’t have to snap it and it’s just a better fit for him all the way around.”

Luke, an exceptional student who carries a 3.6 grade-point average, took a back seat to Villanueva and Devon Dietrich last season. He will make his 10th straight and 23rd overall start of his career on Saturday.

“Robert is a hard working dude who puts his nose to the grind stone and gets it done,” Ralston said.

Luke, who his teammates jokingly call “Thighs” due to his formidable lower body, has also carved out a reputation as one of the strongest players on the team.

“He’s such a hard worker, one of the hardest workers I know,” Villnueva said. “He has that go after it mentality. Nothing is every given mentality. He still works with the same attitude, the same type of mentality day in and day out. You see him do something in the weight room, you think now you have to step it up.”

Sprunk, the son of Missoula native and Chief Operating Officer at Nike Eric Sprunk, came to Montana as a walk-on tight end from Portland. He redshirted in 2013 and played in nine games in 2014, Mick Delaney’s final as the head coach at UM.

With the systematic offensive change under Stitt, the tight end was eliminated. Sprunk and Ralston, himself a Portland native who spent his last few years of high school in Eugene, were left without positions.

Montana center Cooper Sprunk (72)/by Brooks Nuanez

Sprunk accepted the challenge of moving to the offensive line. In 2015, he made four appearances. After Weyer suffered a second and ultimately career-ending injury the first game of the 2016 season, Sprunk broke into the starting lineup. He will make his 20th straight start on Saturday.

“Cooper is a really smart football player,” Reese said. “He can go out and he might not even know what the defense is and he’ll get us lined out and tell us where we need to go. He has improved tremendously since last year and he has been an anchor for us.”

Germer calls Sprunk “an exceptionally smart player” who is also a “film rat.” That’s sparked his improvement as a player, his coach said.

Sprunk has never shied away from being the center of attention. He displays a personality sparked by his self-deprecating humor and easy going temperament.

“He keeps it light for us,” Villanueva said. “He makes the tough days not seem so tough. He has that light-hearted spirit. He’s a funny guy who you can come to for anything on and off the field. He’s always there for anybody.”

Ralston is the newest member of the group. The 6-foot-5, 301-pounder came to Montana as a tight end. He has also played defensive end and H wide receiver before finally finding a fit at right tackle.

RELATED: ROTATION RIDE: Ralston uses multiple position changes as opportunity for growth

ROTATION RIDE: Ralston uses multiple position changes as opportunity for growth

Montana tackle Mike Ralston (51) pass protecting vs Valpo in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

“Coming into this year, everyone was a vet besides Mike playing on the o-line,” Reese said. “He has done a great job. He’s a freak athlete. He has played five positions and he’s found his home at right tackle and he’s gotten better every week.”

Ralston is perhaps the most athletic of the group. He moves well, is strong and has a violent punch. For him, acclimating to the trenches was simply a matter of earning experience.

“He’s athletic and big and strong but had no reps,” Germer said. “You can force feed it but there’s no substitute for someone who is a senior not having two or three years playing the position under his belt. He improves every week.”

Although Sprunk and Ralston spent the first few years of their careers at other positions, Luke said he and Reese were always close with the Oregon duo so when they joined the offensive line room, the mesh was seamless.

“Sprunk and Ralston have always been best friends with us. When they were tight ends, we were cool with them because we knew we were going to be in the same grade,” Luke said. “When Sprunk came in, we knew it was a great addition because he’s a funny guy. And then when Ralston came in, we were really excited too because he’s so athletic. We really like spending time together and being with each other, we’ve created a really good friendship.”

Montana tackle Davis Reese (76)/by Brooks Nuanez

“We mesh so well as a group,” Sprunk said. “It’s not just the starters. It’s the ones and twos. Everyone is really close. We are all best friends. I think just trusting each other, communicating what’s going on, if we something we haven’t seen before, it’s really easy to communicate it out and that’s what makes us work together.”

The group has built chemistry by spending time together frequently outside the locker room. Every Thursday, the Griz hogs have dinner together, either cooking up a feast at “the Hilda House” that Sprunk and Ralston share near campus or going out.

The closeness and flexibility were on full display last week. With the Griz down to fourth-string quarterback Makena Simis and with starting running back Jeremy Calhoun nursing an injured shoulder, the offensive line paved the way for a 101-yard rushing day from the converted H receiver. The Griz posted a crucial 17-15 win over No. 9 Northern Arizona to stay alive in the playoff race.

The Griz have Saturday’s senior day at Washington-Grizzly Stadium and next weekend’s regular season finale against Montana State in Bozeman as their only guaranteed games. Sprunk says he will miss the laughs the most. Ralston said his only regret is not converting to offensive line much sooner in his career. Luke said he will most miss “grinding with the guys.” As a whole, the group of seniors have helped set the foundation for the resurgence of Montana’s once-proud offensive line.

Montana center Cooper Sprunk (72)/by Jason Bacaj

“The bond I’ve shared with these guys, these guys will be my best friends forever,” Reese said. “They will be at my wedding. It’s crazy it’s coming to an end so fast. We have to keep winning so we can keep playing for each other.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and attributed. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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