MISSOULA — Travon Van is like the scorching afternoon sun in Missoula.
He can burn you in a variety of ways.
Montana’s speedy senior ball carrier has a new title this year — running back/wide receiver. He’s been working on his wideout skills all summer and his versatility should prove beneficial when the Griz football team opens its season at Wyoming in three weeks.
“It’s been a little different just training wise as far as my whole offseason, working more receiver than running back but trying to keep them both maintained,” said Van, who transferred to UM from FBS Marshall prior to the 2013 season. “It was basically running routes and understanding my depth and the concept of why we run these routes.”
Van will tell you that splitting out wide is more complicated than you might imagine.
When his number was called to run a pass route out of the backfield last year, there wasn’t much reading of the defense. He simply darted like a sprinter and looked for the ball. His 70-yard TD reception at North Dakota was one of the most memorable plays of the 2013 season.
At wide receiver, Van has to do a lot more surveying.
“I’m learning to be patient on my routes and understand the defense more,” he said at Saturday’s preseason practice at the Riverbowl. “Now I have to read the whole secondary and see where the linebackers are sitting, see the depth of the corners. There’s a lot more to it. I’m starting to like it a lot, though.”
Van was Montana’s second-leading rusher in ’13 with 523 yards and six touchdowns. But he battled injuries for a good part of the season and injuries have dogged him for most of his college career.
According to Montana coach Mick Delaney, Van’s work at wide receiver was prompted by an injury.
“The original thought process was with the cast he had on — he had surgery in June or late May on the wrist he had trouble with all last season — there was a chance he was going to miss two full weeks into the season and prefall for the most part in the rehab process,” Delaney said. “But then he worked hard and got ahead of schedule.
“So our thoughts were if we can get him out at receiver for six or seven plays here early, and if he can’t play running back or even if he can, now we’re prepared for him to go out and play. He’s a tremendous athlete, a very good receiver in addition to being a good running back.”
Van has seen considerable time at wideout in preseason camp and he’s excited to put his versatility to work against the FBS Cowboys.
“The main important thing at wide receiver is to catch the ball,” joked the San Diego native, who finished second in rushing for Marshall in the 2011 season.
“Playing Wyoming, you know they’re on scholarship, we are too. At the end of the day they bleed just like us. We just have to go out there and play the game, that’s it.”
The Griz were in full pads for the first time Saturday morning and tempers flared. At one point Delaney had to stop practice, calling everyone together to emphasize composure.
“I love the enthusiasm and that type of stuff but we were really undisciplined as far as, you know, we start shoving and pushing and punching each other and that kind of stuff,” the coach said. “That’s not us and that won’t be us. We’ve got to get on that right away.
“It’s what it is sometimes. We’ve been out here go-go and then they finally get full pads, getting after each other and the emotions get carried away a little bit. We’ll get that straightened out. There would be nobody who would feel worse than the coaches and players if we lose a player for a game.”
One challenge for Delaney and his staff has been keeping an experienced, talent-laden defensive line from blowing up almost every pass play the No. 1 offense attempts. Griz quarterback Jordan Johnson has done a lot of scrambling and on Saturday he had the wind knocked out of him.
Because the No. 1 defensive line is so strong and the No. 1 offensive line is so young, offensive success has been spotty.
“But you know that’s what it is,” Delaney said. “There’s years when it’s the other way around, too.
“We just have to continue, and we will, to keep working and working on that O-line. One thing about it, when you’re going against the best, you’re going to get better. There’s no doubt about it. We know there’s some growing pains there but you can’t not go. I’m excited about the progress the O-line is making.”
Griz co-offensive coordinator Scott Gragg switched up his No. 1 offensive line for the weekend. All week he has been going with Logan Hines at center, Jordan Hines and Ben Weyer at guard and Jackson Thiebes and Devon Dietrich at tackle. On Saturday he replaced Thiebes with Clint LaRowe.
The offense had trouble pushing the ball in the end zone in a 1st-and-goal situation from the 3-yard line. Running back John Nguyen finally punched through on the fourth try, running around the right side.
Missoula native Zack Wagenmann was a force defensively, blowing up a reverse on one play and forcing Johnson to throw the ball away on another. Fellow defensive end Tyrone Holmes had a sack and linebacker Herbert Gamboa intercepted Johnson in 7-on-7 action.
There were some bright spots offensively. Chase Naccarato, Kevin Berland and Josh Janssen all had TD receptions. Tight ends Mitch Saylor and Cooper Sprunk had receptions in scrimmage action.
The Griz will have two practices on Saturday, with the first starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Riverbowl and the second at 7:30 p.m. inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The team will hold a situational controlled scrimmage at 8 p.m. and the public is invited.