Paul McCartney won’t be the only one rockin’ and rollin’ on the University of Montana campus Tuesday.
The Griz football team will take to the Riverbowl field for its first official practice at 9:40 a.m. With a bevy of battle-tested offensive threats and a souped-up defense, it’s a given the Griz will be fun to watch when the season kicks off at Wyoming on Aug. 30.
Senior Jordan Johnson is one of the best to ever take the field as Griz quarterback. Ditto for senior Jordan Canada at running back.
On top of that Montana boasts speedy Travon Van behind Canada and electric wideout Ellis Henderson, who strikes fear into opposing defenses and special teams coverage units.
“It’s awesome,” Johnson said of Montana’s arsenal. “It makes my job a lot easier.
“It’s also nice having a little bit of continuity coming into a year. It’s the second year for our (pro set) offense – first time for me coming in with that. I think it’s exciting.”
Exciting yes, but there are pressing questions. Johnson, Canada, Van and Henderson aren’t going to be worth a darn without help from a new-look offensive line. Then there’s the departure of kicker Ben Worst to the University of Idaho and a revamped defense, which lost three senior linebackers and two defensive backs.
“But starting up front I think we’re as good defensively as anybody,” said third-year head coach Mick Delaney, who guided the Griz to a 10-3 mark last season. “Zack Wagenmann and Tyrone Holmes at the ends ... Caleb Kidder and Tonga Takai are I believe as good of inside players as there are in the Big Sky Conference.
“We’ve got competition and we’re going to be able to play 8-9 guys on the defensive front, which is our philosophy to try to keep guys fresh. I feel real good about that.”
Delaney loves this time of year. He and his coaching staff haven’t had any on-field contact with their players this summer, so he’s excited to get back to business and find out what his Griz have been working on since the end of spring drills.
“I know Mike (Gerber) has had a really good summer with them,” Delaney said of Montana’s strength coach, who was with the program back when Bobby Hauck was racking up wins and returned after Rob Oviatt departed in January.
“We feel, and the kids feel, we’ve gotten stronger and faster. Mike tested our guys (on July 24) and the test results were very positive as far as strength increases and those type of things.”
The players have taken it upon themselves to work together in player-run practices the last two months. Twice a week they run drills, following scripts from UM co-offensive coordinator Kefense Hynson and defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak.
“So really we’ve probably got somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 14 practices this summer, even though the coaches weren’t there,” Delaney noted. “That’s a real encouraging thing to see the kids take that responsibility on themselves.
“My understanding in talking to the kids is it’s no messing around. They go out and do it just as they would do if we were there. That’s a great tribute, I think, to the leadership in this group coming back.”
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One area where new leaders need to emerge is the offensive line. The Griz lost three big guys who have garnered NFL attention in right tackle Danny Kistler, guard William Poehls and center Kjelby Oiland.
The good news is that senior Trevor Poole and junior John Schmaing are back. Poole is a third-year starter who moved from left guard to left tackle. Schmaing will start at right tackle for the second straight season.
They each weigh in at 290 pounds along with junior center Logan Hines, who saw action in eight games last season.
“Then we have guys who have spot-played here and there,” Delaney said. “I think they’re going to be really good as we get solidified a little.
“Ben Weyer had a really good spring. Jordan Hines had a good spring at the other guard. (Back-up center) Devon Dietrich had a nice spring, (back-up tackles) Max Kelly, Clint LaRowe – we’ve got people there that will compete really hard.”
Montana lacks experience at tight end. Redshirt freshman Mike Ralston or converted wideout Mitch Saylor will assume the starting role, unless redshirt freshman Cooper Sprunk or Jermaine Jones, a 240-pound transfer from Laney College in Oakland, California, makes a big impression in August.
“I think Jones will be a real positive asset to that group,” said Delaney, who also has several true freshmen at the position, including 225-pound Kole Swartz of Missoula Hellgate. “We’ll have competition there.”
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On defense the Grizzlies’ back seven hopes to make up for inexperience with speed. Junior Jeremiah Kose came back strong in the spring after knee surgery last fall. He has taken over a leadership role at middle linebacker.
“ ‘Then we moved Herbert Gamboa down from safety to (outside) linebacker the second half of last season and he had a really good spring,” Delaney said. “He’s a very good athlete – might be the second- or third-fastest guy on the football team, at least coming out of high school.
“And (outside linebacker) Kendrick Van Ackeren stepped up. He played a good amount last year but has stepped up again as a junior leader and had a really good spring.”
Kose, Gamboa and Van Ackeren will be pushed for starting jobs by a group that includes Connor Lebsock, Tucker Schye, Connor Strahm and converted safety Zach Vis.
The rock in Montana’s secondary is senior free safety Matt Hermanson, who was second on the team in tackles last season with 107. Junior cornerback Nate Harris is also a proven starter.
Senior Joshua Dennard will step in at the other cornerback position, although he will be pushed in practice by sophomore JR Nelson. Junior Justin Whitted is the heir apparent at strong safety, with Jake Dallaserra and Laney College transfer Eric Johnson pushing for playing time.
“I think (Johnson) could be something special,” said Delaney, who also has his fingers crossed veteran kicker Chris Lider will return to 2012 form without Worst around to push him.
The Grizzlies will pace themselves in the first week of practice. Heat is always a factor in August and the players will go helmets-only the first two days.
The next two are helmets and shoulder pads. Then Saturday the Griz will have their first full-contact session.
The goal is to be razor sharp for Wyoming, an FBS team hungry to make a big impression in its home opener under first-year coach Craig Bohl. You may recognize the name – he led North Dakota State to FCS championships the past three seasons.
“Then you throw in Central Washington, who we escaped with our lives a few years ago when I first got here,” Delaney said of Montana’s first home game on Sept. 6. “And South Dakota (a week later), coach Joe Glenn has done a really nice job there and they will be better. We escaped with our lives at South Dakota last year.
“So you add those four nonconference games,” he said of a September slate that also includes a serious test at North Dakota State, “along with playing Eastern Washington on the road, Southern Utah and Cal Poly on the road, that’s a heck of a challenge. But it’s a challenge we love to look at. We don’t talk a lot about wins and losses. We talk about we’ve got to do everything we can to give ourselves an opportunity to be successful at the end of each game. I think we’ve done a nice job of that so far.”