More thoughts on the offensive revisions at UM and MSU

2013-06-19T19:00:00Z 2013-06-19T23:29:08Z More thoughts on the offensive revisions at UM and MSUGreg Rachac The Billings Gazette

Everyone knows by now that both the Grizzlies and Bobcats are charting new courses on offense heading into the 2013 season. Montana hired in-house when Timm Rosenbach left, promoting assistants Kefense Hynson and Scott Gragg to co-offensive coordinators. At Montana State, Tim Cramsey was hired to replace the departed Kevin McGiven.

You're going to see some distinct changes on offense at both schools this year, although the alterations will probably be more noticeable at UM with the implementation of a more pro-style, under-center philosophy. Meanwhile, MSU coach Rob Ash has said Cramsey's presence gives the Bobcats a more wide-open approach. Both teams admitted to some growing pains during spring practice, but both have a lot to look forward to in the fall.

At Montana ... 

  • Hynson will call the plays on game day, while Gragg will serve as more of an "adviser" of sorts. The duo will collaborate to mold the game plan during the week. Both guys have professional backgrounds -- Hynson did NFL minority coaching fellowships with the Seahawks (2008), Raiders (2009) and Chiefs (2010), while Gragg played 11 seasons as an offensive lineman in the NFL with the Giants, 49ers and Jets. He was an All-Pro pick in 2002. Gragg told me in March that he and Hynson (not to mention head coach Mick Delaney) are comfortable with more pro-style, two-back sets that employ fullbacks and tight ends. Not to mention, Hynson and Gragg are simpatico when it comes to terminology and philosophy. Hynson has past experience as an OC, having served in that role most recently at Yale and Western Washington. 
  • It could mean a new era of offensive football foreign to what Griz fans have become accustomed two in the last three seasons. From 2010-12, primarily when Robin Pflugrad was head coach, Montana employed the Oregon Ducks-style spread option which included a dynamic zone-read running game. The Grizzlies were especially successful with this in 2011, as QB Jordan Johnson guided the team to the FCS playoff semifinals. He had 1,390 passing yards and 15 TDs in the last seven games of that season. Johnson's performance against Northern Iowa in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs was his best game to date. Now that Johnson is back with the team after a year away, it will be interesting to see how he'll adjust to playing more under center. I have no doubt the Griz will still use Johnson's skills in the shotgun, but I'm not sure if Johnson has ever really taken snaps consistently while not in the gun, and he isn't a prototypical drop-back pocket passer. It will definitely be something to keep an eye on. Will J.J. return to his 2011 standard?
  • In the running game, the pro-style offense seems like it's more suited for a guy like Chase Reynolds than a Jordan Canada (and it was). I'm not saying Canada won't get his yards -- he might be the most talented back in the Grizzly arsenal -- but I look at a guy like Marshall transfer Travon Van to have a huge say in how the team fares on the ground this year. And don't overlook sophomore-to-be Joey Counts. At 215 pounds, Counts can be a very effective between-the-tackles type of runner. Of course, you're only as good as your offensive line, and Montana has a good one. Danny Kistler Jr. is the main man at right tackle. If the Grizzlies do indeed line up more under center with two tight ends and/or a fullback, Kistler and the o-line represent a great start at the point of attack. 

At Montana State ... 

  • In order to analyze Tim Cramsey's potential impact at MSU, you have to look at what he's done in the past. Cramsey coached Florida International to averages of 383 yards and 25 points per game last season. He became available when coach FIU Mario Cristobal and the staff were surprisingly let go after just one season. Cramsey had his best and most important run as an OC at New Hampshire, and was in the saddle in 2011 when UNH lost to Montana State 26-25 in a second-round playoff thriller at Bobcat Stadium. Prior to that, Cramsey was a member of UNH's offensive staff under previous coordinator Chip Kelly. Kelly eventually left New Hampshire to take the offensive coordinator job at Oregon, and is now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. So Cramsey's resume is pretty darn good.
  • The natural question to consider is how well QB DeNarius McGhee will fare under Cramsey's tutelage. But as an example, look at what Cramsey did with Kevin Decker at New Hampshire in 2011. In his first year as a starter, Decker became the Colonial Athletic Association's offensive MVP that year, throwing for 3,272 yards and 22 touchdowns. He completed 68.9 percent of his throws and the offense ranked third in the CAA in total offense (427 ypg) and scoring (32.8 ypg). It's a good sign for MSU. McGhee is on the cusp of several Big Sky Conference records as he enters his senior season. He didn't have any trouble producing yards and points under previous coordinators Kevin McGiven and Brian Wright, so there's no reason to think there will be any hiccups this year. I'm predicting McGhee to be the preseason offensive player of the year in the Big Sky, and with Cramsey pulling the strings, he may very well win it when the season's over too. If he does, it will be the third time in his career.
  • The Bobcats' offensive line was a work in progress throughout last season. With three first-time starters, the young unit looked clunky at times, and McGhee was on the run a lot last year -- and he took way too many big hits. The running game still produced, although Cody Kirk fought nagging injuries and failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark. I suspect the o-line will be improved this year; John Weidenaar is a budding star at left tackle. Can Kirk regain his 1,000-yard form? If  healthy, there's a chance. But there's also a chance MSU's running game will feature many of the zone-read or spread elements the Grizzlies used so well in 2011. That may mean more touches for a guy like Shawn Johnson, one of the biggest home run hitters in the Big Sky. But quarterbacks have typically thrived the most under Cramsey's tutelage (i.e. Decker and former UNH standout R.J. Toman), so that could be the best news for McGhee and his crop of wideouts. Expecations are higher now at Montana State than they've really ever been, so Cramsey will be under the microscope to deliver.

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Sportswriter for The Billings Gazette covering Montana and Montana State athletics in addition to various high school sports.

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