Top 10 sleepers for 2019 Griz


MISSOULA, Montana — Entering the second season of Bobby Hauck’s second tenure as head coach, the Montana Grizzlies have undergone a roster overhaul.

Hauck has added 15 transfers over the last two seasons. Nearly 70 of the players have officially joined the squad after Hauck took the job late in 2017. A total of 16 more players have changed positions, including half a dozen players who became tight ends when Hauck brought a position not a part of Bob Stitt’s program back.

Through the transition, Montana has managed to upgrade its talent and increase its depth. Heading into the 2019 season, the Griz are preparing to face a bear of a schedule but one they are ready to take on full force.

From incoming freshmen to players mastering new positions to talents that have thrived in a Hauck program that puts a priority on player development, there are a collection of Griz primed to make an impact this fall. That list includes several “sleepers” who might not be the usual subjects like Buck Buchanan Award finalist linebacker Dante Olson, All-American candidate wide receiver Sammy Akem or senior quarterback Dalton Sneed, the Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year a season ago.

Here are Skyline Sports’ Top 10 “sleepers” on the Griz football team.

10. Brandon Purdy, kicker, junior — The lefty from Kalispell was lights out during his true sophomore year, drilling 15 of his 17 field goal attempts in 2017. His 88.2 make percentage ranked first in the Big Sky and third in the FCS, leading to third-team all-conference and honorable mention All-American honors.

Montana kicker Brandon Purdy (39)/ by Brooks Nuanez

The Glacier High product also drilled 44-of-47 extra points. He nailed a career-long 47-yard field goal during a 3-for-3 afternoon in UM’s win over Northern Colorado. He also hit three field goals in three attempts against Montana State and Portland State.

Last spring, with a new coaching staff in the fold, Purdy could not participate because of a knee injury. His absence helped Tim Semenza earn a leg up heading into fall camp. The previously inconsistent (at least when it came to PATs) Semenza took full advantage of the opportunity, winning the place kicking job and hitting 13-of-17 field goals.

Semenza graduated last spring and elected to forego his final year of eligibility. Montana added former Montana State two-year starting kicker Gabe Peppenger, a Missoula Sentinel product, to the roster in the off-season to push Purdy. But the southpaw has looked rock solid during fall camp and should be in line for a strong season this fall.

9. Nick Ostmo, running back, true freshman — It’s very rare that Hauck mentions players by name without being prompted during the head coach’s interactions with the media. On August 15, Hauck mentioned Ostmo as a player who has grabbed his attention early on in fall camp.

Montana running back Nick Ostmo at Lincoln High/contributed

Earlier this week, the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from Portland, Oregon ripped off an 80-yard touchdown against Montana’s first-team defense. That same practice, he scored a 92-yard touchdown. But it’s actually Ostmo’s short-yardage ability that has caught the attention of his head coach.

“We can’t be any worse,” Hauck said when asked about converting short-yardage situations. “You can’t be any good at third downs if you can’t convert third and shorts. The other distances are hard. We need reliable blocking and a reliable short-yardage back.”

The battle for carries among Montana’s running backs is among the most heated competitions during UM’s current fall camp. Incumbent sophomore Adam Eastwood (514 yards, nine touchdowns in 2018) is working to fend off junior college transfer Marcus Knight and redshirt freshman Drew Turner. Redshirt freshman quarterback Garrett Graves could also figure into the mix at tailback. And Ostmo adds another potential bruiser to grind out tough yards.

As a senior at Lincoln High, Ostmo was a two-way standout. He rushed for 1,335 yards and 15 touchdowns on just 110 carries. He also rolled up 78 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a sack. He chose Montana over offers from Air Force, Army, Eastern Washington, Columbia, Bucknell, UC Davis, Navy and Penn.

Montana has other options as a short-yardage hammer. The 220-pound Turner is strong and tough. So is the versatile, athletic 208-pound Graves. Missoula Big Sky product Levi Janacaro, a high school quarterback who’s physical maturity belies his redshirt freshman status, also provides another option weighing in at 235 pounds with a knack for doling out punishment with his pads.

But if Ostmo can continue to turn heads, he could find himself in the rotation at one of Montana’s most competitive position groups.

8. Gavin Crow, safety, junior — The physical native of Kennewick, Washington has shown flashes of his hard-hitting ability since he first found playing time covering kicks and punts as a redshirt freshman in 2017.

Montana safety Gavin Crow (20)/by Jason Bacj

As a sophomore, Crow again showed his love of contact on special teams but could not break into the rotation after switching to cornerback to bolster the depth at one of Montana’s thinnest position groups.

Crow’s ability to fill against the run and strike at the point of contact was minimalized playing on the perimeter. Now he’s back at safety and he’s flashed throughout fall camp in a suddenly stacked position group.

Sophomore Robby Hauck runs the alley as well as any player in the Big Sky Conference. His prolific freshman year earned national acclaim. Senior Josh Sandry is a three-year starter who has UM’s rover position locked down.

Redshirt freshman Nash Fouch is a rising star while Gavin Robertson, a former Arizona transfer who played at 225 pounds last season, is looking lean and athletic.

But Crow has shown an ability to dissect plays quickly and run to the ball throughout fall camp. In Montana’s defensive scheme, three safeties play often so there’s an opportunity for Crow to make a splash now that he’s back at his natural position.

7. Malik Flowers, wide receiver, sophomore — Flowers showed his speed and explosiveness in spring of last year. He is physically impressive with good top-end speed. But in Montana’s deep wide receiver corps, Flowers has not been able to crack the rotation.

Montana wide receiver/return specialist Malik Flowers (19)/by Jason Bacaj

His jets helped him make an impact last season despite not registering a reception. Flowers ripped off a 37-yard kick return on the first chance of his career in UM’s season-opening win over No. 13 Northern Iowa. He returned two kicks for 78 yards in a win over Drake, including setting a new career high with a 40-yard rip. And he scored his first kick return touchdown as a collegian in UM’s road loss at Western Illinois, ripping off a 95-yarder.

All told, he averaged 27.6 yards on 22 total returns, earning Montana’s Hauck Family Special Teams Player of the Year award.

Montana’s receivers should again be one of the best position groups in the league, period. Akem had a monster sophomore year, snaring 14 touchdowns. Senior Jerry Louie-McGee and junior Samori Toure are proven commodities. Gabe Sulser has turned heads all fall camp and looks primed for a gigantic sophomore season.

If the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder from Fontana, California can continue improving, his talent is too great to be denied. He will find a way to make an impact on the field one way or another.

6. Milton Mamula,defensive end, redshirt freshman — Mamula has one of the most atypical backgrounds of any player on the Griz roster. His natural talent is prodigious. He might be higher on this list if injuries weren’t such a prevalent part of his young football career. But Mamula must prove he can stay healthy if he wants to prove he can become an impact player.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder suffered two broken vertebrae his freshman year at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania that cost him two years. He suffered a broken foot his junior year, impeding his recruitment.

During a senior healthy year, the son of former first-round draft pick Chris Mamula rolled up 15.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss. Chris Mamula was the No. 7 overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, spending his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. There, he met former Montana All-American Tim Hauck, the brother of UM head coach Bobby Hauck.

That connection eventually led Milton Mamula from Philly to Missoula. But last season, he again suffered an upper body injury. The actual detail was never confirmed but Mamula was seen on campus in a sling. His picture on still shows him wearing a sling as well.

His physical makeup and muscular structure is elite for an FCS edge rusher. Health will be the key if he hopes to break into the lineup this season. But he’s shown flashes of his ability to get to the quarterback on occasion during fall camp.

5. Matt Rensvold, tight end, sophomore — Montana’s tight ends were a non-existent group two years ago under former head coach Bob Stitt. Hauck brought the group back and moved several players perfectly suited for the spot back to the position.

Montana tight end Matt Rensvold (81)/by Brooks Nuanez

That group, which includes Rensvold, senior Colin Bingham and sophomore Bryson Deming as its key returners, caught the eye of many observers because of their physical gains the first few days of fall camp.

“They look good physically,” Hauck said. “They had a great off-season. They are all workers. All that time in the weight room should show up and it does with that group. We have to keep recruiting that position. I don’t have an assessment on the young guys yet but you keep recruiting those guys because you can never have too many of them.”

Bingham is a proven blocker and pass catcher who will be leaned on for his toughness and leadership this fall. Deming had several impressive catches last season. But Rensvold is the most intriguing prospect of the group.

The 6-foot-4 former conference MVP in basketball has tremendous athleticism, from his fluidity running routes to his jumping ability to soft hands that one Griz coach called “the best on the team”. Now that Rensvold is up to 248 pounds, if he can maintain his athleticism, he could be a mismatch nightmare for UM opponents.

4. Alex Gubner, defensive tackle, redshirt freshman — Gubner was a late signee in Hauck’s first class, not landing on Montana’s radar until a month before National Signing Day. Then he redshirted and was largely anonymous his first year on campus.

During spring practices, he emerged almost right away. The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder has a violent hand punch and plays with a mean streak. What he lacks in mastery of UM’s scheme he makes up for with a high motor and an ability to chew up blocks.

At Chaminade Prep in Southern California, Gubner notched 10 sacks, 16 tackles for loss and 70 total tackles to earn first-team all-conference honors.

If he continues to push for a starting spot or earning reps on the interior of UM’s offensive line, it could help Montana give senior stalwart Jesse Sims more snaps at defensive end.

3. Cole Grossman, outside linebacker, freshman — After grey shirting and not joining the team until January, Grossman has been one of the noticeable breakout performers among UM’s young players.

Recruited as a wide receiver or tight end, Grossman received FBS offers from Hawaii and Wyoming before picking the Griz. After spending last summer and fall largely on his own, he joined the team and quickly asserted himself as a top contender to start at Montana’s outside linebacker/edge position.

“We need defensive players in this program too,” Hauck said with a laugh. “He has some aptitude there. I thought he had a nice spring for a guy just starting. He’s physically immature but he has some athleticism. 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.”

The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder doesn’t have ideal mass but he makes up for it with fluid movement, above average speed and tremendous length. He had a pair of tackles for loss during the Griz spring game in April.

The former high school basketball standout from Vancouver, Washington has gotten significant snaps with the first-team defense during practices in the spring and the fall. He’ll be in competition with R.J. Nelson, Jed Nagler and a few other players as Montana tries to improve its total of one sack by edge players last season.

2. Garrett Graves, redshirt freshman, quarterback — The versatile, tough Eureka, Montana native has been working with the Griz quarterbacks since he joined the team. During fall camp, he’s been wearing a white jersey like the rest of his offensive teammates rather than red jerseys like the quarterbacks.

Graves, a two-time Class B state champion wrestler at 181 pounds, played at all three levels defensively at Lincoln County High while also quarterbacking the Lions to two straight state titles on the gridiron as well. Hauck has said he has the ability to play several positions at the college level but the Griz are still concentrating on developing the 6-foot-3, 202-pounder at the position he was recruited.

“We want him to continue to develop at quarterback,” Hauck said. “He’s really improved this training camp there. He’s athletic enough we’d certainly like to utilize him other places. Mostly that will be based on his ability to understand and master different positions.

“It’s hard to play just one position, let alone a few.”

Although Hauck deflected the prospect of Graves playing running back, Graves earned seven carries last year at tailback and has taken turns in the backfield during fall camp as well. It’s unlikely Graves plays defense, at least this season, but he could find a spot in the offense even if it’s not as the main man under center.

1. Mitch Roberts, wide receiver, sophomore — The Missoula Sentinel product has made as much progress climbing the depth chart as any player on the Griz roster since the end of last season. The former quarterback has used diligence, the ability to take coaching and a blossoming athleticism to climb into a position taking first-team reps for a potentially lethal Montana offensive attack.

Montana sophomore Mitch Roberts, a Missoula Sentinel product, caught a touchdown/ by Colter Nuanez

“Mitch had a big off-season, a big spring ball so he’s making a move,” Hauck said. “But it’s a deep group. It’s real competitive for plays and playing time. Mitch is making a good push there.”

Toure had a breakout year in 2017, notching one of the longest touchdown receptions in program history, an 81-yard catch-and-run that served as one of his five scores that season. He caught 37 more passes for 440 yards and two touchdowns last season.

By the second half of spring ball, Roberts overtook Toure with the first unit.

“Those guys are in competition for playing time and they are both excelling right now, which is the by product of that competition,” Hauck said.

Roberts had excellent ball skills, sneaky speed and a knack for making highlight-reel catches. The younger brother of former Griz standout Ben Roberts doesn’t have the size of his older brother — Mitch is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds while Ben was 6-foot-4, 210 — but the youngest Roberts sibling is starting to develop the savvy and gamesmanship that it will take for him to make an impact for the Griz this season.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. 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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