There were times last fall when Josh Janssen must’ve felt like he was wearing a maroon body suit.
A true freshman just trying to work his way out of the background at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. A wide receiver from Loyola Sacred Heart who was still fighting anonymity heading into 2014 spring drills, nowhere to be found on the Montana football team’s depth chart.
Oh how things have quickly changed. Injuries have paved the way for Janssen to work with the No. 1 offense in preseason camp and the redshirt freshman has taken to the opportunity like a grizzly to a huckleberry bush.
“He’s an explosive athlete,” UM wide receivers coach Torrey Myers said after practice Tuesday at the Riverbowl. “So if you just went strictly by weight room numbers, if you look at his vertical jump and his lifts, you would notice he’s one of the better pound-for-pound guys on our team.
“Then you come out here and the last three or four practices he’s been going across the middle, jumping, coming down with catches that are really difficult to make.”
The 6-foot, 195-pound Janssen had probably his biggest catch as a Grizzly on Sunday night. Granted it was only a scrimmage, but his 59-yard hookup with reserve QB Brady Gustafson was an indication how far he’s progressed since February.
“It was pretty cool, just in a live scrimmage situation to get a catch and get a little YAC after the catch,” Janssen said. “Then with the little bit of crowd there too, it was kind of fun.
“It was just one of our reads where I have to make sure I’m reading the safety right. If he’s flat-footed I just keep going. If he’s not, I have to sit down and stop. I saw him dive in and thought immediately, ‘Oh, I’m going to get the ball here. Just catch the ball and run.’”
One of Janssen’s best qualities is humility. It drives him to do things others might not when no one else is looking. Like working painstakingly long in the weight room, a place where he feels right at home. Or visiting Myers’ office three or four times a week last spring to study game film.
“I obviously make dumb mistakes here and there that I shouldn’t, but that’s part of being a freshman and learning and getting thrown in and just learning the game,” offered Janssen, an all-stater who helped lead Loyola to its first State B football title in 2012. “I came from a pretty small school where things were pretty simple and now to the Division I level, things get very complicated. You learn as you go.”
Janssen’s emergence as a capable backup who should see good playing time in 2014 started last spring. Griz star wideout Ellis Henderson was sidelined by stomach issues that have continued to keep him out of scrimmage situations this fall. Veteran backups Taylor Walcott and Sean Haynes were sidelined by leg injuries and continue to sit out.
Enter Janssen, sophomore Ryan Burke of Billings and senior Kevin Berland, who like Janssen prepped at Loyola. Burke made a splash when preseason camp started a week ago. Berland and Janssen made nice catches late last week and Janssen has taken it to another level the last few days.
“Josh in particular has done a really nice job catching the ball down the field,” Myers said.
Janssen and Burke saw a lot of time with the No. 1 offense on Tuesday. Janssen made his presence felt on a 20-yard pass from Jordan Johnson.
Janssen, who came to UM on a partial scholarship, credits strength and conditioning coach Mike Gerber with pointing him in the right direction with his offseason work.
“He has definitely helped me in the weight room and everything,” Josh said. “That’s one of my passions – I love lifting and trying to make myself a better athlete and explosive.
“I never was the most athletic, especially coming here now I’m not. There’s guys like Jamaal (Jones) and Ellis (Henderson) that are just absolutely insane. I have to make sure I take care of stuff in the weight room to keep up with them.”
One emphasis in preseason camp for Montana’s receivers has been running after the catch. Time and time again coaches can be overheard beckoning the players to “finish.”
“We feel that we have guys with ability – again Josh is a good example, the older guys that have played are good examples – that once they get the football in their hands are strong enough and fast enough to get us some extra yardage,” Myers said. “Particularly when we get down in the red zone, we want to score touchdowns.
“So we’ve been emphasizing after you catch the ball, you’ve got to get your pads down and you’ve got to find a lane and get there somehow, some way.”
The Griz offense made more strides in Tuesday morning’s practice. Co-offensive coordinator Scott Gragg, in charge of a young offensive line, at one point shouted, “We’re getter better!”
Gragg was without his top returning linemen, tackles Trevor Poole and John Schmaing. Poole is nursing a bad back and has yet to practice in camp and Schmaing, who played well in Sunday night’s scrimmage, was also absent from practice Tuesday morning.
In their place, Gragg went with sophomore Devin Dietrich and sophomore Jackson Thiebes at tackle. Then the rest of his No. 1 line was made up of Jordan and Logan Hines and Ben Weyer, who was spelled at guard from time to time by Iowa product McCauley Todd.
Together they gave Johnson time to throw against Montana’s No. 1 defense. The offense appeared to find a decent tempo and running backs Travon Van and Jordan Canada joined Janssen on the list of players with noteworthy catches on Johnson passes.