One major area of concern for Montana’s football team heading into preseason workouts was the tight end position.
There was good reason to worry. When heir apparent Jordan Harper left the program unexpectedly in May, the Grizzlies’ game experience at the position dwindled to zilch.
Montana is looking to redshirt freshman Mike Ralston and senior converted wideout Mitch Saylor to fill in the gap initially. On Wednesday coach Mick Delaney expressed his satisfaction over the progress of all his tight ends.
“We came into camp wondering exactly what we were going to have, but we’re going to be fine,” he said. “There’s lots of competition.
“They’re good athletes and hard workers. It’s really gratifying when you take a position you weren’t sure about and have it develop as well as it has.”
Ralston and Saylor in some ways represent the evolution of the tight end position. Ralston is more of a throwback at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds. Saylor (6-5, 235 pounds) is more like Montana’s version of Dallas Clark, the ex-Indianapolis Colts star who made a killing catching passes all over the field and occasionally lined up in the slot.
“Our Y tight end is a traditional tight end – has to be big enough to be able to block at the line of scrimmage with his hand on the ground against defensive ends like Zack Wagenmann,” Delaney said in describing Ralston’s duties. “He has to have good size and still be athletic to run routes.
“Then our H tight end is more of a hybrid, so to speak. Kind of like a Mitch (Saylor). A guy you can move off the ball and get in motion but also physical enough to put his hand on the ground and be a better-than-adequate blocker. That’s kind of where Mitch and Josh Horner are at right now at that position.”
Ralston will tell you he’s prepared for action because he’s been facing guys like Wagenmann and Tyrone Holmes ever since last fall when he served his time on the scout team. There are still things to learn for No. 98, but he appears more comfortable every day whether it be blocking or snaring a short pass from QB Jordan Johnson.
“It’s definitely a challenge knowing where you’re supposed to be on plays and how things fit,” the Oregon product said after practice at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“Each run block has a certain goal to it. Each pass pattern – whether it be pulling a defender away from a route to open up a receiver or just trying to be in the right place at the right time – has a goal to it.”
This week especially Ralston and Saylor have been prominent in Montana’s scrimmage passing. Each has sure hands that come in handy when Johnson zips the ball. Saylor has valuable experience finishing on longer routes, collecting eight catches for 88 yards last year despite battling health issues.
“Last year I had surgery so I am excited to get on the field again,” he said. “Some things are different (playing tight end after being at wide receiver). There are a lot of similarities that carry over to an extent.”
Griz tight ends coach Ross Brunelle makes no bones about the importance of the tight end position to Montana’s pro set offense.
“We talked about it last spring and we talked about it this fall – we have to have a role as tight ends in our offense, and we have to have a significant role if we’re going to be a good offense,” he said. “I think the offense is miles ahead of where it was last spring and we just keep getting better every day.
“For us, with Mitch (Saylor) coming over from wide receiver and with three young guys, the one thing we need to continue to work on is physicality. “We’ve got to be able to come out and be physical and drive guys off the ball in our run game, and just really be playmakers by making plays when the ball is thrown to us.”
Joining Ralston, Saylor and Horner in the battle for playing time at tight end are redshirt freshman Cooper Sprunk and junior college transfer Jermaine Jones.