Spring football is a hard-charging, frenetic time. And with just 15 practices to burn, you’ve got to use it wisely.
This year, the theme is consistent for coaches Rob Ash and Mick Delaney.
Montana State’s Ash and Montana’s Delaney each cede the notion that their defenses are ahead of their offenses as spring drills crawl to a halt. And that’s no surprise; such is typically the case at this time of year.
But a large part of the reason is unique, at least, in that each team is breaking in new offensive coordinators: Kefense Hynson and Scott Gragg were promoted to co-offensive coordinator duties at Montana in December. Tim Cramsey was hired to take over the OC job at MSU about a month later.
Both teams are installing new playbooks and adjusting on the fly. It’s made for some mercurial moments.
“The coaching staff met for about a month before spring practice started, but we knew we had to wait to try things out on the field,” Ash said. “You can watch all the film you want, but until you get out on the field and put it together you just don’t know what you’ve got.
“We’ve been through some ups and downs, but I like the variety of plays we can run. It’s a little more wide-open concept. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s taking us a little longer. We’ve got a lot to look at.”
In addition to their changes on offense, Delaney and the Grizzlies have spent the spring trying to knock the rust off of junior quarterback Jordan Johnson, who is back with the team after missing last season in a highly publicized off-the-field drama.
Johnson sat out a portion of spring practice with an injured hamstring, but has since returned. Delaney said Johnson has reclaimed his starting job.
“There’s so much new we’re doing on offense that it’s a different playbook completely,” Delaney said. “And there’s a lot of different terminology. We’re putting our quarterbacks under center and doing a lot of things we used to do in the (shot)gun. So there’s a learning curve. But (Johnson) is coming along.
“We’re a little bit behind, but we’re catching up. It’s been a huge adjustment mentally for everybody.”
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Cramsey came to Montana State from Florida International, where he was the offensive coordinator before losing his job when head coach Mario Cristobal was suddenly fired at the end of last season.
Prior to that, Cramsey was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire for three years.
As Ash noted, Cramsey’s influence is wide-ranging. Ash said the Bobcats have implemented elements of the spread option perfected by the Oregon Ducks and utilized to success at Montana in the past few years.
Those elements came to fruition at a scrimmage last weekend, when backup quarterbacks Dakota Prukop and Mitch Griebel (an Air Force transfer) combined for 159 yards rushing.
But that’s just one concept the Bobcats have been learning under Cramsey, their third offensive coordinator in the past four seasons.
“It’s going to be fine by September, but you can’t say it’s been a seamless transition,” Ash said. “There’s always a learning curve with how a new coordinator manages the room and calls a game. We have time. We’ll get it. But it’s a challenge. I can’t say it’s been like clockwork.”
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The reason for Montana’s defensive dominance this spring has a lot to do with 10 returning starters — guys like defensive end Zack Wagenmann, linebacker Jordan Tripp and safety Bo Tully.
Delaney posits that as many as 20 players are capable of seeing the field on defense at Montana this season.
Those guys gave Griz quarterbacks fits during a scrimmage last weekend in Ronan, racking up seven sacks and picking off four passes. The wind reportedly gusted at speeds as strong as 25 mph. Some argued the weather was the reason for the offensive struggles. Delaney wasn’t buying it.
“We can never let the wind and weather be an excuse,” he said. “We’re in Montana, man. We have to play in those conditions all the time. The result of the scrimmage was entirely due to how the defense was playing.”
Hynson and Gragg are busy mixing traditional, pro-style elements with the same up-tempo, spread design UM utilized the previous three seasons. It’s a methodical operation.
“It’s a learning process,” Delaney said. “We have to spend time working with it every single day.
“We started on Day 1 with the things that we felt we had to get better at, starting with discipline and finishing games in third or fourth quarter. So we’re making sure we put ourselves in the right situations.”
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Montana State wraps up spring ball this weekend with the Triangle Classic in Great Falls. The annual event is the biggest fundraiser of the year for MSU football.
It begins Friday night with a banquet at Four Seasons Arena, where Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson will give a speech. It concludes Saturday with the Bobcats’ final scrimmage at Memorial Stadium.
“It’s good to have a change of venue,” Ash said. “The banquet is always really inspiring. It’s great for our guys to get out and see the interest and passion fans have for our team. And we typically get a strong crowd for the scrimmage on Saturday.”
Ash said Saturday’s scrimmage will be more of a scheme evaluation than a “game.” The seventh-year coach also said his staff is eager to get a final comparison between the second- and third-string players battling for playing time.
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Delaney and his staff won’t pull any punches during Montana’s final scrimmage Friday night at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
“It will be a situational scrimmage. It won’t be a game,” Delaney said. “We’ll put the guys in various situations and see how they perform. We’ll do what we have all spring: Goods on goods.
“There’s no sense putting your top guys against a bunch of young guys just to go out and look good for the fans. We’re going ones-against-ones, twos-against-twos and so on. We feel that helps us get better every day.”
The Grizzlies will also incorporate their rich history into the scrimmage by featuring their two championship-winning quarterbacks, Dave Dickenson and John Edwards.
Dickenson, UM’s title-winning QB in 1995, and Edwards, the champion signal-caller in 2001, will speak to the crowd before the scrimmage, and will sign autographs afterward.