NOTE: This is the ninth (and final) installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
The Big Sky Conference is a league of quarterbacks. And one man stands above the rest: Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams. Adams (who they call "Big Play V.A.") was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award last year, and is probably the favorite to win it in 2014.
As coach Beau Baldwin said about Adams last season, "This guy’s got the guts to go win games.” How far will Adams take the No. 1-ranked Eagles this season? Maybe all the way. But there are a bunch of other top QBs in the conference (there's nine others listed below) who may have something to say about it. Check out our final Top 10 list, and enjoy the season.
TOP 10 QUARTERBACKS
1. VERNON ADAMS, JR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 65.6%, 4,994 yds, 55 TD, 15 INT, 183.1 efficiency; 605 rush yds, 4 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Adams had the greatest statistical season of any quarterback in Big Sky history. The only thing missing was a national title (the Eagles lost to Towson in the semis). Adams won't necessarily be counted on to match last year's totals -- they're too mind-boggling. But he will be expected to make the same big plays, score lots of points and, if he can, lead EWU to Frisco and the national championship game. Expectations have never been higher. With Adams pulling the strings, you have to love their chances.
Observations and quotes from Montana State's football media day, held Thursday morning at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman:
• The competition for the placekicking job remains open -- and remains underrated
You never think about the importance of a field goal kicker “until the first time a game is depending on a field goal,” Bobcats coach Rob Ash said. “It’s going to be huge.”
Ash has had solid kickers throughout his coaching career, be it Billy Cundiff at Drake or Jason Cunningham and Rory Perez at MSU. But as camp moves foward the placekicking duties are still up for grabs between three Montanans -- Luke Daly from Billings Central, Trevor Bolton from Great Falls High and Trevin Thompson from Helena High. The fact that nobody has taken the lead in the competition might be a bit disconcerting, but there’s still time.
“It’s a very big decision and the guys have been battling hard,” Ash said. “There’s been a lot of tension because they’re trying to figure out who’s going to get the job. At some point I have a feeling one of them is going to take a deep breath and relax and just start making field goals, and that will settle it. We’d like to pick one guy, get him the confidence and move forward. But we really don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go yet.
It's still early on the NFL calendar, but Jordan Tripp is already making an impression with the Miami Dolphins.
Tripp, a Missoula Big Sky graduate and former Montana Grizzly, was selected by the Dolphins in the fifth round of this spring's NFL Draft. After a strong performance in Miami's first preseason game, Tripp has received repetitions with the starting defense in practice, according to the South Florida media.
"It's a broad spectrum. The more knowledge you can bring to the game the more reliable you're going to be," Tripp, who is playing both inside and outside linebacker, told the Sun-Sentinel. "My comfort level is only getting better and better. I'm just taking advantage of the reps they give me and focus on making new mistakes, not the same ones again, and learning from those mistakes."
Tripp became a favorite of multiple NFL draft experts last spring as one of the small-school prospects to watch. His pro-day measurements impressed scouts, but it was his leadership and playmaking ability at Montana that really stood out.
The skill and motivation he showed in Missoula, which ultimately earned him the coveted No. 37 Grizzly jersey, have apparently put Tripp in position to grab one of Miami's three starting linebacker spots -- a rarity for a rookie, let alone a small-school player drafted in the fifth round.
NOTE: This is the eighth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
The loss of Kristaan Ivory puts a damper of Cal Poly's hopes going forward. Ivory was a returning 1,000-yard rusher and was picked for the preseason All-Big Sky Conference squad, but this week he found himself in hot water over an alleged robbery -- and suspended indefinitely from the team. The Mustangs won five conference games last season, but what happens now?
Even without Ivory, there's a treasure trove of talent returning at the running back position in the Big Sky: Manzanares, Forte, Canada, Johnson, Finney, Bolen ... and several others you don't know but should by season's end.
TOP 10 RUNNING BACKS
1. GABE MANZANARES, SR., UC DAVIS 2013: 259 car, 1,285 yds, 5.0 avg, 10 TD; 27 rec, 385 yds, 14.3 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: No back averaged more all-purpose yards per game than Manzanares, and only one (NAU's Zach Bauman) had more carries. A JC transfer, Manzanares emerged as a tough runner who took on a heavy workload and kept on ticking. He also proved to be a solid receiver out of the backfield -- a versatile threat. Coach Ron Gould mentored some big-time ground-gainers during his long tenure as the running backs coach at Cal -- Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best among them. Manzanares is Gould's latest protégé.
NOTE: This is the seventh installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
Who saw Cooper Kupp coming? The Eastern Washington receiver was the breakout freshman player in the Football Championship Subdivision last season, establishing himself as one of the top playmakers in the country. He and quarterback Vernon Adams were an invincible combo in 2013.
The league lost a handful of quality wideouts from last year -- Greg Hardin, Luke Austin, Ashton Clark, Tanner Bleskin, Morris Norrise -- but the breadth of talent returning, which includes Kupp, is staggering. Will Kupp hold his position as the Big Sky's best? Or will someone else take the mantle?
TOP 10 WIDE RECEIVERS
1. COOPER KUPP, SO., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 93 rec, 1,691 yds, 18.2 avg, 21 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The sequel is never as good as the original, so it will be interesting to see how Kupp performs this season after winning the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS in 2013. What do you do for an encore? The statistics were staggering, but what really stood out were the explosives: Kupp made 11 catches of 40-plus yards, and had five touchdowns of 50 or more yards. By year's end he'd set six FCS receiving records. There's no reason to think Kupp won't be Vernon Adams' favorite target again, or that they won't rekindle the magic.
NOTE: This is the sixth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
We've talked before about how the rise of the Oregon-style spread offense has changed the role of the "classic" tight end in college football. The position is definitely evolving. Still, despite the lack of a household name, most teams in the Big Sky still use tight ends -- and use them to their advantage.
Who will make the biggest impact in 2014? These 10 guys are a good bet to do most of the work. And it's not easy to find 10 guys:
TOP 10 TIGHT ENDS
1. R.J. RICKERT, SR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 22 rec, 246 yds, 11.2 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Rickert caught at least one pass in NAU's final seven games last year, which was part of a six-game winning streak that earned the Lumberjacks a playoff berth. Rickert's numbers haven't been eye-popping, but NAU relied heavily on running back Zach Bauman, and Rickert did his job blocking down low. Bauman, incidentally, was the team's leading receiver last year with 44 receptions. But Bauman's gone, and coach Jerome Souers has said he thinks his team can be better in the passing game. That could translate into a bigger year statistically for Rickert.
NOTE: This is the fifth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
Cal Poly led the nation in rushing last season and Portland State ranked third. Individually, PSU's D.J. Adams and Northern Arizona's Zach Bauman both ranked in the top 10 nationally in ground yards, while five others eclipsed the 1,000 mark. And quarterbacks had big seasons also. Yes, the Big Sky sure got its money's worth out of its offensive linemen last season.
But many of the big names are gone, including the entire group that was named first-team all-conference last season. A new year calls for a new crew to take over as the best in the league. Here are 10 to watch:
TOP 10 OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
1. CORNELIUS EDISON, C, SR., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 12 starts, third-team All-Big Sky. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: This will be Edison's third year as a starter, and so far he's been a major reason why the Vikings have become one of the very best rushing teams in the FCS. Last year PSU averaged nearly 278 rushing yards per game -- third-most in the nation -- and averaged a league-best 6.0 yards per carry. The Vikings do lose D.J. Adams, who was one of the best backs in the league the past couple years, but with the 6-3, 295-pound Edison helping to create holes they should have no trouble finding ways to churn out yards and production again this year.
NOTE: This is the fourth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
The Big Sky Conference continues to be a breeding ground for great defensive linemen -- and Buck Buchanan Award winners. Montana State defensive end Brad Daly, after sharing the league's defensive player of the year award with Cal Poly tackle Sullivan Grosz, won the Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS in 2013.
It was the Bobcats' second straight Buchanan win (D-end Caleb Schreibeis won it the year prior), and served as the Big Sky's sixth Buchanan since 2003. Five of those, by the way, were defensive linemen. Who's next?
TOP 10 DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
1. JAMES COWSER, DE, JR., SOUTHERN UTAH 2013: 78 tkl, 19 tfl, 10½ sacks, 8 qbh, 2 ff, 2 fum rec, 1 int. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: How Cowser wasn't a first-team All-Big Sky selection after last season is a mystery. How he wasn't a unanimous preseason pick for 2014 is also puzzling. Helping SUU to a surprising playoff berth, Cowser had more tackles than any Big Sky lineman last year, and his sacks and tackles-for-loss totals were second only to Buchanan Award winner Brad Daly. With linebacker Zak Browning gone, Cowser will command more attention from offenses, and that might tamp down his numbers. But his impact, which is significant, won't decrease.
NOTE: This is the third installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
Southern Utah takes a major hit this year with the loss of first-team All-Big Sky linebacker Zak Browning, who has left the team to embark on a two-year Mormon mission. Not great timing for a program that made the playoffs last year.
Browning certainly isn't the first player to make such a commitment (and he won't be the last). The reverse of SUU's situation is Eastern Washington's fortune of getting Ronnie Hamlin back for a sixth year. So the Eagles' D hangs on to one of its fixtures while the Thunderbirds lose one of theirs. With Browning out and Hamlin returning, here are the 10 linebackers to focus on entering the 2014 season:
TOP 10 LINEBACKERS
1. RONNIE HAMLIN, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 140 tkl, 6 tfl, 2 sacks, 2 ff, 1 fumble rec, 2 int, 2 pass def, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: As if Eastern Washington needed any more star power, Hamlin is back after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Hamlin has already made 37 starts and has racked up 361 career tackles, and enters 2014 just 71 tackles shy of breaking the all-time school record set by former Buck Buchanan winner and fellow linebacker J.C. Sherritt. EWU has played 11 playoff games since 2009 (the year Hamlin arrived on campus). There should be more coming, especially with Hamlin wreaking havoc.
NOTE: This is the second installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
With Vernon Adams, Cooper Kupp and Co. coming back to Eastern Washington lock, stock and barrel, every defensive back in the Big Sky Conference is on alert. The Adams-to-Kupp combo was the scourge of the league last year, and the Eagles put up an astonishing 58 passing touchdowns.
But it's not just Adams. The Big Sky brings back a number of quality QBs, including Montana's Jordan Johnson and Sac State's Garrett Safron among others. So defenses will be tested through the air again in 2014, no doubt. Here are 10 DBs to watch this fall. As was the case in this space last year, the "pass def" statistic is combined between pass breakups and passes defended into one number.
TOP 10 DEFENSIVE BACKS
1. TEVIN MCDONALD, S, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 48 tkl, 2½ tfl, 1 int, 5 pass def, 1 ff. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: McDonald came to Eastern Washington in 2013 from UCLA, where he was a two-year starter, but he struggled through injuries and didn't put up the kind of stats he did with the Bruins. He missed EWU's final six games but was still named third-team All-Big Sky. The 5-11, 190-pound McDonald, the son of six-time NFL All-Pro Tim McDonald, is an unquestioned talent. If he stays on the field he has what it takes to be the Big Sky's best defensive back. He's just one more stud on a team with serious national championship aspirations.
Montana State’s women released their basketball schedule on Tuesday, and there are a couple big non-conference games listed: at Boise State on Nov. 14, Gonzaga at home on Nov. 21, Wyoming at home on Dec. 6, and at Washington State on Dec. 20. Oh, and the doubleheaders have been reinstated for the Cat-Griz men’s and women’s games on Jan. 17 (in Missoula) and March 7 (in Bozeman).
But there’s bigger news on the horizon. MSU’s men’s schedule has yet to be released, but word out of the athletic department is that there will be some cool non-conference matchups for 2014-15, in particular games at UCLA of the Pac-12 on Nov. 14 and at iconic Rupp Arena to face SEC power Kentucky the day after the Cat-Griz football game (Nov. 23).
Those games, in fact, are bookend contests on a season-opening, five-game road trip that will take the Bobcats from coast to coast. Here’s how that trip will shake out:
• Nov. 14 at UCLA
• Nov. 17 at Grand Canyon
NOTE: This is the first installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.
Special teams are never the focal point ... until they lose a game for you. I went back and counted, and 11 games last season were decided by three points or fewer, including Eastern Washington's 49-46 win at Oregon State on Aug. 31.
EWU's win in Corvallis didn't end with a game-winning field goal or another special teams play (instead, QB Vernon Adams ran one in from 2-yards out with 18 seconds left), but a few did. Southern Utah kicker Colton Cook hit two game-winners last season, and that helped the Thunderbirds make the FCS playoffs for the first time. Here's are 10 to watch in 2014:
TOP 10 SPECIAL TEAMERS
1. SHAWN JOHNSON, KR/PR, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 22 KR, 31.0 avg, 100 long, 2 TD; 16 PR, 13.9 avg, 82 long, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Johnson was the only player in the league to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last season, and his 31.0-yard average on kickoffs led the Big Sky (by far) and ranked fourth in the FCS. Coach Rob Ash has said that MSU's offense will revolve more around Johnson, but that he'll also still be used fully in the return game. Johnson wasn't healthy from all the hits he took toward the end of the 2013 campaign, but there isn't a better return man in the league. The Cats should stick with him as much as possible.
A large contingent from Montana State's athletic department made a swing through Billings on Tuesday, football coach Rob Ash among them. I was able to catch the coach for a few minutes to ask him about the Bobcats' quarterback situation, offensive continuity going into their second year under coordinator Tim Cramsey, Brian Flotkoetter's health and ability to become the No. 1 receiver, special teams decisions, building on an identity as a team, and a lot more.
I've parsed part of our conversation down to five components. Here is what Ash had to say:
• When the coaches pick a quarterback, he'll be THE guy: Ash said he's not into shuffling quarterbacks, or using one during the first quarter and another in the second, etc. He affirmed that when MSU decides on a starter -- be it Jake Bleskin, Dakota Prukop, Tanner Roderick or Quinn McQueary -- the coaches will stick with the pick. But the competition will be open when fall camp starts, so we're still two months away from knowing who it'll be.
“I’m not so worried about it because we have talent there," Ash said. "We are going to pick a quarterback and we’re going to go with him, and we’re not going to mess around with it. The passing game is big for this offense. One thing that I like about (Tim) Cramsey’s offense is that we can use lots of different types of people. We can use (Gunnar) Brekke and (Chad) Newell and Shawn Johnson out of the backfield, we can use tight ends, lots of different guys. You don’t have to have that prototype drop-back pass game. You can use all kinds of different methods to throw the football, and I think that will end up being the right way to go.”
• The Bobcats have "flushed" last year, opting instead to create the concept of a "new team" for 2014: Yeah, last year's ending was forgettable. Before floundering down the stretch and losing their final three games, the Cats were in great position to again make the playoffs. But it all vanished in November. Ash said the disappointment lingered during the winter, but was replaced with a fresh approach once spring ball began.
If you like to see Montana represented in the NFL — and who doesn’t? — the NFL draft is a good place to start. This year’s draft is next weekend, and a couple more Grizzlies have a good chance of hearing their name called sometime Saturday.
The first round is scheduled for Thursday night, the second and third rounds are Friday, and the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds are Saturday.
The highest-ranked prospect from Montana, according to national pundits, is UM linebacker Jordan Tripp.
NFL.com projects Tripp to come off the draft board somewhere in the fifth or sixth round. Gil Brandt, who was part of the Dallas Cowboys’ front office for many years and now contributes to NFL.com, thinks more highly of Tripp, ranking him the 125th best player in the draft.
“Tripp has a chance to be a late third-round draft choice,” Brandt wrote after the Grizzlies’ pro day in March.
Craig Robinson may be President Obama's brother-in-law, but one thing he is not is the head men's basketball coach at Oregon State. Not anymore. Robinson was fired Monday after going 94-105 in six seasons.
When the firing was announced, potential coaching candidates were mentioned on a number of media outlets, including Wayne Tinkle. The Oregonian specifically mentioned Tinkle, Montana's coach for the past eight seasons, as one of five possible candidates, and also points out a couple interesting connections, including one with with former Griz assistant Freddie Owens, who was on Robinson's staff this year at OSU.
Former UCLA (and Northern Arizona) coach Ben Howland, who once guided the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours, was also mentioned as a candidate on a CBS Sports blog.
Of course, this is nothing new. Tinkle's name has been mentioned in connection with a number of openings in recent years, including at Fresno State and, more recently, Washington State. Tinkle has strong recruiting ties in the west, has the energy and personality to invigorate a stagnant program, and he's a proven winner. He is 158-91 (.635) at Montana, and has taken the Griz to three NCAA tournaments. But does Oregon State need to make a splash by hiring a coach with a bigger name?
One X-factor could be Tinkle's son, 4-star recruit Tres Tinkle of Hellgate High. If the Beavers were to ever hire Wayne Tinkle, they may get a package deal and come away with a player that is now ranked 78th nationally in the 2015 recruiting class by 247sports.com.
The Montana Grizzlies' annual Spring Tour through eastern Montana brought them to the monthly meeting of the Midland Roundtable at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center on Thursday. UM athletic director Kent Haslam, along with football coach Mick Delaney, men's basketball coach Wayne Tinkle and women's basketball coach Robin Selvig all addressed the crowd.
There were several revelations, eight of which I've highlighted below from my interviews with each guy. Take a look:
8. Groundbreaking for the student-athlete academic center will begin in August.
Originally scheduled (tentatively) for May or June, Haslam said groundbreaking on UM’s long-awaited student-athlete academic center will happen in August.
“We want it completed by the fall of 2015,” Haslam said. “The goal is to make it functional and a long-lasting facility to be used for years; wide open spaces where student-athletes can stop by and do their studying.
Earlier in spring practice, Montana offensive line coach Scott Gragg had some very high praise for returning left tackle John Schmaing, telling GoGriz.com:
"If you look at just the grades, not necessarily production, John graded out better than our three starters who just left us from last year. He's a really consistent player. As a junior next year he's going to be the next guy that the NFL will have its eyes on. He's just becoming a very good player, and doing some really good things. It's neat to see a Montana kid playing as well as he is, and he's going to move into that leadership role for us on the offensive line. My expectations are super high for him."
That's important for the Griz, because Schmaing, a Billings Senior product, is the only returning offensive lineman entrenched at the same position he played last season. Trevor Poole also returns, but he's being moved from left guard to right tackle, where Gragg says he's more comfortable. Other than that, UM's offensive line will have a different look in 2014 than it did a year ago.
This chart breaks down the difference:
|LT||John Schmaing, So.||John Schmaing, Jr.|
|LG||Trevor Poole, Jr.||Jordan Hines, Sr.|
|C||Kjelby Oiland, Sr.||Logan Hines, Jr.|
|RG||William Poehls, Sr.||Ben Weyer, So.|
|RT||Danny Kistler, Sr.||Trevor Poole, Sr.|
It's not the only spring position battle at Montana State, but it's the most important one. And the question will be asked from now until fall camp: Who will be the Bobcats' next starting quarterback?
MSU won't be able to simply replace DeNarius McGhee. McGhee was a four-year starter who set several passing records and became the winningest QB in program history. He was the face of Bobcat Football. He helped put them back on the map.
After last season, coach Rob Ash declared the quarterback competition open for the taking as McGhee walked out the door. Instead of giving junior-to-be Jake Bleskin the reins, the Cats want to also give Tanner Roderick, Dakota Prukop and Quinn McQueary equal looks. Bleskin started two games and showed great ability when McGhee was hurt, but the job is not automatically his.
"We are officially opening up the position for a fair fight for all four guys -- Jake, Roderick, and McQueary and Prukop," Ash said at the time. "Jake obviously has the edge as far as experience and age and playing time, and we did have that conversation with Jake, too. Just for the sake of good competition we’re going to officially say it’s open right now. We’re going to rotate guys around and get a good look at everybody and see what happens. And they all know that and they’re very excited about it.”
It's a smart move. The competition is designed bring out the best in each guy.
Spring practice started at Montana on Saturday. The Grizzlies are bringing back 14 starters from last year's 10-3 team (7 offense, 5 defense, 2 special teams), and will again be in the conversation of Big Sky title contenders.
But the most glaring aspect of this Griz team is what's missing, particularly at linebacker, where they say goodbye to standouts Jordan Tripp, Brock Coyle and John Kanongata'a and welcome in an entirely new group of starters charged with the task of replacing them.
Players leave ever season, but this is pretty unique. Right now, the depth chart lists junior Kendrick Van Ackeren as the starter on the weak side, junior Connor Lebsock or junior Herbert Gamboa on the strong side, and freshman Tucker Schye or junior Jeremiah Kose in the middle. Freshmen Connor Strahm and Zach Vis (didn't he come to UM as a receiver?) are also in the mix.
This, of course, is just the spring depth chart and is certainly subject to change. But you get the idea: It's a brand new era at linebacker in Grizville. And this crew will be under a microscope.
Tripp, Coyle and Kanongata'a combined to play 152 games and make 93 starts. That's a ton of experience lost. Tripp, of course, was a total beast, and remains on the NFL Draft radar. Coyle might have been the best linebacker in the league last year, despite his inexplicable omission from the All-Big Sky first team.
Excluding the legendary Golden Bobcats of 1929, Montana State doesn’t have a history of national prominence in men’s basketball. They’ve been competitive, no doubt, but they haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1996, and have gone that far only three times in history.
Still, things haven’t been the same in recent years. In the eight seasons under coach Brad Huse, MSU is 107-134 overall and 64-72 in conference games. Hardly a picture of consistent winning. The Bobcats hit the low point of Huse’s tenure last week when they failed to qualify for the Big Sky’s postseason tournament.
Anybody can have a down year. It happens. But this was more than that. The Bobcats should be -- and typically have been -- a fixture at the Big Sky Conference tournament. It started out pretty well, but missing out on the tourney this year, of all years, is an unacceptable outcome. And it shouldn’t be excused as just a “bad season,” especially in a league with an RPI ranking well toward the bottom of Division I conferences. To have a bad year in the Big Sky in 2013-14, you had to be really bad. And this was supposed to be a breakout year, with the maturation of JC transfers like Flavien Davis and Antonio Biglow leading the way.
The finality of the Bobcats’ 14-17 (9-11) season puts a microscope on Huse. Last year, MSU went 13-17 and finished 10-10 in the league -- almost identical numbers -- and he was given a big vote of confidence by the university in the form of a two-year contract extension.
Huse is locked in contractually for next season at roughly $115,000 in base salary. If athletic director Peter Fields and, more importantly, university president Waded Cruzado want to make a coaching change now, they’d have to buy Huse out. And that's not happening.
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