Scott Gragg was one of the best players to wear a Montana Grizzlies uniform -- certainly in the last 20 years, if not of all-time.
Gragg was a behemoth offensive lineman at UM in the early 1990s, winning the Grizzlies’ Paul Weskamp award as the team’s top offensive lineman a record three times. He went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL with the Giants, 49ers and Jets, and was an All-Pro pick in 2002.
But now, as Gragg gets set for his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Griz, he’s ready to take on the new role of co-offensive coordinator. With spring practice underway, Gragg and Kefense Hynson are sharing the OC duties under head coach Mick Delaney, who begins his second season as the replacement to Robin Pflugrad.
Gragg was in Billings last week for the annual Rocky Mountain College Pigskin Classic coaches' clinic. On Friday I sat down with Gragg for an extensive interview, during which he talked about his offensive philosophies, the return of quarterback Jordan Johnson, the expectations of bouncing back in the 2013 season, and much more.
Below is the full transcript of the interview. Read on:
GENERALLY SPEAKING, HOW IS THE OFFSEASON PROGRESSING?
“I think we’re a lot further along than we were a year ago. Actually, a year ago we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. This is about two weeks before the storm hit last year. That kind of knocked us off a little bit. But now with Mick having a year under his belt, with a clear direction of where we want to go, and with a lot of the things that were hanging over our head cleared up, we’re really optimistic. I don’t know what the numbers are, but we played a lot of guys that didn’t have a lot of experience last year. And we had some rough spots, some bumps and bruises. But we also learned a ton, and a lot of those guys are going to be key returners and will contribute a bunch for us this season.”
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE RECRUTING CLASS YOU SIGNED IN FEBRUARY?
“Because we didn’t graduate a lot of seniors we weren’t able to recruit as many guys as we would like to, just because we were limited in scholarships. But with those limitations we got a lot of bang for our buck, we think. We did really well in the state of Montana, but in the northwest as well. We’ve got a good following and good support in Spokane and Seattle and Oregon. Idaho, certainly. And that’s where you see the bulk of our players coming from. We got a couple key transfers -- some that many people don’t know about. We’ve got a couple walk-on guys that we had recruited in the past, and whether it was academics or finances or whatever, it wasn’t able to come to fruition. But they’ve been competing in our offensive program now, and look really good.”
HOW EAGER IS THE TEAM TO GET ON THE FIELD THIS SPRING AND TURN THE PAGE ON LAST YEAR
“Despite the adversity, despite what the university had to overcome last season, we remained focused throughout the season. I think any lesser team would have folded their tents and cashed it in long before the end of the season. We were in every game, and if a couple balls bounced literally our direction we would have had a couple more wins in our favor. But you can’t live that way either. Every team can say that.
“With the (Jordan Johnson trial) and the things that were looming over our heads, we have a chance now for us to take a deep breath, to move on and to turn the page. Physically turn the page. I think we were ready to do that anyway and had done 99 percent of that. Unfortunately the other 1 percent is what everyone else sees. But we’re in a good spot. Our guys are ultra competitive and ultra excited about the upcoming season. We did a short installation meeting (Thursday) with the offense, and you could feel the energy. Guys are ready to go. It’s probably their desire to get out of winter conditioning and into some real football stuff, but they’re antsy to go.”
HOW WILL THE CO-OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR DYNAMIC WORK BETWEEN YOU AND KEFENSE HYNSON?
“It’s funny. I’ve never been caught up in titles, and it’s not a sense of arrogance or entitlement whatsoever. I think Mick looked at my experience in the running game and my contributions to the running game with the team over the last three years, and what Kefense brings to the table. Kefense and I are more aligned philosophically football-wise than two people coming from different backgrounds could be. His work with some pro teams and some coordinators and some offenses that literally call their offenses the same way, you just don’t find that in football -- when you bring two guys that have never really crossed paths before who call blocking schemes and offenses and defenses exactly the same. Exactly the same.
“There’s a lot of common ground with us. Kefense will call the plays, and I will function in the way that I will function as I have the last three years. If I see a run play that I think we can utilize or we can take advantage of, or if I see a pass that we can do or a protection scheme I think we can use, whether on game day or during the installation and game-planning process, I’m going to bring it up and we’ll go from there. My influence is not only to confirm and advocate what Kefense already believes in, but also to add some leadership in philosophy and what’s important -- ball security, communication and some things that broaden the scope of what we’re trying to do. Not just Xs and Os.
“I appreciate the co-offensive coordinator title, certainly. It looks good on a resume. But I look forward to helping Kefense call a great game.”
WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT THE RETURN OF JORDAN JOHNSON AND WHAT IT MEANS?
“I think Jordan’s leadership has been evident throughout this process. Not only prior to the allegations and trial, but the whole year that he was away from us he really conducted himself in a leadership way. He’s shown tremendous leadership in what he’s said and how he’s responded to adversity. When you look at any adverse situation or difficult situation, that’s when leaders really show up. And I think the way he responded gave evidence of his leadership skills.
“What’s great about Jordan is that he’s never shied away from competition. He’s been a smaller, injured quarterback, even in high school. He’s had some serious injuries that he’s overcome and been able to perform at a very high level. If you ask Mick about any position on the field, there’s competition at every position. You look at guys that are Buchanan (Award) candidates, they’re competing against each other in our linebacker corps. And our offensive linemen are returning. We have three returning seniors, and you might think their jobs are secure. But they have some young guys behind them that are going to be pushing them during spring ball.
“At quarterback, Trent (McKinney) has competed well and done well last year. Shay (Smithwick-Hann) came in later in the season and competed well. And Brady Gustafson … nobody’s seen Brady yet. We’ve seen him, and obviously he’s been seen in high school. But our defense, which he scouted against every single day during the fall, every guy says, ‘This guy’s unbelievable.’ He makes us better. So there’s going to be a desire to get him on the field sooner than later. As good as Jordan is, there’s competition. And that’s great. Jordan’s never shied away from that, Trent’s never shied away from it, Shay hasn’t, and Brady won’t.
“It’s great to have (Johnson) back. It’s great to have him back in the fold and it’s good for him to be able to move on. All those things are good and positive situations. That was kind of one of the gray clouds that hung over our heads for a year. We wondered what was going to happen. And now we can move on. Some of the outsiders … I wouldn’t say they used it against us, but they certainly talked about that uncertainty. But now that’s gone. We are what we are, and we look forward to getting to work.”
WERE YOU SURPRISED ABOUT JORDAN’S DESIRE TO RETURN TO THE GRIZZLIES AFTER EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED?
“I wasn’t. Just knowing him, he’s a very quiet, reserved guy. The strangest thing about this whole thing is that his personality is so anti-media and anti-focus on self. It’s more about the team. Every interaction I had with him the previous year was one or two sentences. There was always a smile on his face and it was always about how great life was. I don’t give any coaching advice to quarterbacks because I don’t know how coach the position, but just if I said, ‘Hey Jordan. We need to get serious here,’ he was like, ‘OK.’ He’s a can-do, competitive guy.
“It would have been easy for a lot of people to see the situation and go, ‘OK. I’m out of here.’ And that could have happened a year ago. I think the first indication for us that he wanted to remain a Griz -- even though the coach that recruited him was gone (Pflugrad) -- was his willingness to stay in and fight these things. As you know, many of these cases never make it to trial. And I think that shows his determination to at least have his side of the story told.”
OFFENSIVELY, WHAT CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE ON THE FIELD NEXT YEAR? WILL THERE BE MANY BIG CHANGES?
“You look at the skill sets of our quarterbacks, and many of them were recruited for the read-zone-option style of offense. So we’re not going to move that to the sideline and adopt a whole new offense. What you saw from us in an up-tempo read-option is certainly going to be a component of what we do, and will always be a part of what we do.
“With Kefense and myself, with our pro and traditional sets, you’re going to see some of those flavors too. Definitively we’re going to play with 11 guys (laughs). Our quarterback is going to hand the ball off occasionally, he’s going to run with it occasionally and he’s going to throw it occasionally. But to the novice onlooker or fan, it’s not going to look that different. Maybe to someone that is very familiar with Oregon Ducks-style football or however you want to label that trend, there’s going to be some subtle differences.”
IF JOHNSON HADN’T RETURNED, WOULD THAT STILL HAVE BEEN THE PLAN?
“We had our playbook finished about three weeks before Jordan’s trial even started. And I think that’s a credit to Mick, a credit to Kefense and a credit to the program that we were going to remain focused on what we do. That’s what was best for Jordy and that’s what was best for us. So we’ve maintained that focus.
“Now knowing that (Johnson) is back and he’s with us, it expands our playbook more than it limits it, so we can add tweaks knowing that he’s back there.”
HOW DOES JORDAN LOOK GOING INTO SPRING PRACTICE?
“He’s been doing our winter conditioning for the last two weeks. He’s fast, he’s physical, and he will be out there.”
HOW CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY? DO YOU LEAN MORE TOWARD A PRO-STYLE, TRADITIONAL THEME?
“If you had asked me that question four years ago, I would have said absolutely. I knew nothing about Oregon-style offense. It had been going for a couple years, and that’s where (Pflugrad) came from. We started seeing it at the high school level where I was (in Oregon), mostly the bubble screens off of the inside-zone tracks. As a high school team we started to dabble in that, but it wasn’t something I was tremendously familiar with.
“My first year (at Montana) under Pflugrad was a tremendous learning curve. It was something that was a foreign idea. There are some things about football that will never change, but there were a lot of things that I had to learn real fast about how to communicate, how to block, and different schemes. Our first year, we made a bunch of mistakes. I think our whole offense would concede that. But after that year we were able to meet with (Oregon offensive line coach) Steve Greatwood and were able to meet with some people that had struggled with those same issues going into it.
“But by year two, by winning the Big Sky Conference and making it to the semifinals, you could argue that we had it dialed in and ready to rock and roll. And then last year was an extension of that. It didn’t end the way we wanted it too, but I really felt comfortable with that style of offense. Today, if that was solely the direction we wanted to go, I’m completely comfortable with that. If we want to install a couple play-action passes and some traditional split-zone plays, it’s not going to be something I have to dust off. It’s right in the back of my mind. So it’s given me more of a broad base of knowledge going forward. I feel like I’m a more well-rounded coach. And the things and the schemes that I’ve learned in the read-zone option offense have helped with further understanding the pro-style side of it, too. It gives us more concepts to use in a traditional sense.”
LET’S TALK ABOUT PERSONNEL. WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT THE PLAYERS YOU HAVE COMING BACK ON OFFENSE?
“We lost two great running backs in Peter (Nguyen) and Dan Moore. But we return a great one in Jordan Canada, who has done an awesome job in kind of a supplemental role. Now his load will increase a little bit. TraVon Van, a guy that we’ve got as a transfer (from Marshall) has been everything that was advertised, so he’ll be a great addition. Gavin Hagfors, from (Great Falls) CMR, and Joey Counts will be in there as well. So we’ve got a good, young group of running backs that are going to help us.
“Tight end was probably our biggest loss in Greg Hardy, but Clay Pierson played well last year in his first year at that position. He’ll be a senior this year and looks to have a heavy role. One of the guys that no one’s heard of yet is a transfer from Oregon, who looks to be doing all the right things. Curtis White is his name. He’s doing some great things for us. And then Joey Spoelstra is a kid that walked on to our winter conditioning class, and guys like Gavin Hagfors and a couple others will have an H-back, second tight end look to us when we decide to go that way. But (tight end) is an area of concern. Mike Ralston is going to have to step in as a true freshman, probably, and have a large contributing role.
“We talked about quarterbacks and where we’re at with that -- healthy competition of four quarterbacks. We can’t travel with four quarterbacks, so that’s going to be a really tough decision for us going forward. But it’s an open competition. Shay (Smithwick-Hann) is our slotted starter right now. But everyone’s going to get equal reps until someone rises out of that group early on. When the spring prospectus comes out it will have Shay as our slotted starter. But that’s because you’ve got to have someone in that spot. In the end it will be a hard decision, but it will be one that will show itself. We’ll deal with that as it happens.
“Our line is probably our strongest suit returning. Danny Kistler will probably be an All-American candidate. Our center, Kjelby Oiland, certainly is an All-Big Sky candidate. And William Poehls, who won’t see a lot of action, if any, this spring, is a guy that will certainly garner some of those preseason accolades. Really, where we’re young or inexperienced would be at left guard; we’ve got to replace Jake Hendrickson at that position. We’ll have John Schmaing at left tackle, and he’ll probably get the most reps in the spring. I’ve got him as our slotted starter for the fall at left tackle, so it’s imperative that he gets a ton of reps. He finished (last) season as our starter, and I’ve got a lot of confidence that he’s going to do a good job for us. And then we’ve got five freshmen that all redshirted last year, and what I’d like to do and what I’ve done in the past, is that those guys are going to see a quarter of each game in some capacity. I’ll get Max Kelly in a couple series a game at left tackle, Clint LaRowe will get one or two series at right tackle, Devin Dietrich and McCauley Todd will share time at right guard. Samson Kaleikini and Jordan Hines are the two that are competing for the (starting) spot at left guard. I think the only guy I haven’t mentioned is Ben Weyer from Bozeman. He’s done awesome. It’s unfortunate, because he’s improved the most from his senior year in high school to his freshman year in college in size, strength, ability … all those things. And right now he’s our third center behind (Oiland and) Logan Hines. But, Ben is smart enough and strong enough that if I decide to throw him in and get a couple reps at guard or another position, I don’t think he’d bat an eyelash. It would be good to get him in.
“At wide receiver we lost Sam (Gratton), and that’s where Gerald Kemp finished his career. We also lost the kid from Dillon, Bryce Carver. So we’ve lost some gritty receivers that have done some good things for us. With that said, we have got some young talent that you saw glimpses of last year. We started to utilize it more as they got an understanding of what was going on. Running back and receiver, going from high school to college, I think is the biggest leap in knowledge and technique and difficulty. You go from being the fastest kid and being wide-open on passes, and then you get to college and it takes time. Taylor Walcott, Sean Haynes, Ellis Henderson … we’re expecting big things out of those guys. Cam Warren is our clutch receiver. He’s one of our lone seniors that is back, and he’s a guy that’s tremendously smart and you can always count on him to do the right things. Mitch Saylor is a big-body guy that will see a lot of time, too. These are guys that we know of and are anticipating big things out of, but they’re really unknowns for the rest of the conference, state and country, which is a good thing. It’s good that no one knows about those guys yet.
“That’s kind of where we’re at. It should be a great fine-tuning this spring, rather than a rebuilding for us.”
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE WAY MICK DELANEY HAS HANDLED THE ROLE OF HEAD COACH?
“He came in after accepting the head coaching position with some hard and fast standards that I think our program really needed at that point in time. It was a clear, concise picture of what he wanted to see accomplished, how it was done and who he was going to hold accountable -- coaches, players, administrators. And I think there were some growing pains for a program that didn’t really know what its identity was in a turmoil situation. But there’s no question it is what we needed. Guys know that they’re going to be held accountable for their actions off the field, and it really has allowed them to perform at a high level.
“He has got so much respect around the state, and has influenced so many people positively, that he’s done a great job of weathering this storm not and abandoning ship. He’s embraced the adversity head-on. Anyone that knows Mick can see a re-energized enthusiasm for the upcoming season. He hates losing as much as anyone, and he’s ready to show everyone that the Griz are in good shape.”
IS IT DIFFICULT TO OPERATE WHILE NOT KNOWING WHAT THE COACHING STAFF MAY LOOK LIKE NEXT YEAR? IS THERE ANY UNCERTAINTY?
“Technically, this is the last year of Mick’s contract. I don’t know what’s public and what’s not, so I’ll just say that’s technically what it is. What he has said publicly is that he will coach as long as he’s got the energy to coach, and right now he’s got a ton of energy and loves what he’s doing. I think that answers a lot of questions of what he’s doing and where he’s at. You look at the majority of the coaching staff, and we have committed to the cause. I’m not going anywhere, so that’s an easy question to answer.
“You look at the transient lifestyle of college football, and it’s the nature of it all. If you try to promise what’s going to happen tomorrow, that’s being foolish. Certainly, I have aspirations to stick around Montana for a long time, but I can’t promise what’s going to happen tomorrow. I know Mick wants to win. I want to win. Our coaching staff and our players want to win. If those things happen there’s an excellent chance for us to be here for awhile.
“What is going to be the key factor in us sticking around is what we do on the field. We’re confident we can do that. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re optimistic, positive and working hard toward those ends.”
EXPECTATIONS ARE ALWAYS HIGH AT MONTANA. WHAT ARE YOU EXPECTING FOR THIS YEAR?
“The goals have never changed since I played (at Montana). Coach (Don) Read had a plan -- to get a degree, beat the Bobcats, win a Big Sky championship and win a national championship. Those same four goals are on every wall in our building. So those are our expectations. That’s what we’re striving for on a daily basis, in the snowy mornings of winter conditioning to a semifinal game against Sam Houston.
“That’s the expectation of our fan base too. The argument now is whether or not it’s realistic, and I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t a realistic goal. With the guys we’ve got, the attitude and the pride and tradition that we have, I think it’s an achievable goal every year.”
WHAT WOULD IT MEAN FOR THE TEAM TO GET STARTED ON THE RIGHT FOOT WITH A WIN OVER APPALACHIAN STATE ON AUG. 31?
“I think it was a big factor last year, losing a tight game over there. A couple of recurring themes started in that game. We played well but didn’t finish well, and didn’t take advantage of a couple key opportunities, and we had some key turnovers. It was a recurring theme to our season. You never know, but maybe if we have one or two less turnovers and take advantage of a couple key situations and come away with a win, maybe that gives us more confidence and momentum to win a couple games down the road that were close losses too.
“Early games are always huge, and certainly when you’re playing a team like Appalachian State, it’s a big game for us. Hopefully it will be under the lights. We’re looking forward to it. I think for either school it would be easy to go try to find another game. But I think we’ve kind of embraced this preseason rivalry, and it might turn into a postseason one too.”