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.
So who will assume the mantle? The coaches absolutely love Kose, but he hasn't been able to stay on the field due to two ACL injuries, and he's played in just two games in two years with the program. Gamboa was moved up from safety to linebacker this offseason, so there will be an adjustment with him, and Vis is very untested and very small (205 pounds) after being moved from wideout.
Lebsock is a good-looking player and will get much more time on the field this year. Schye could be a great one, but he's yet to play a down. Neither has Strahm. Van Ackeren, who played 12 games a year ago after transferring from Hawaii, is the team's most experienced LB. He made 29 tackles. Addison Owen, incidentally, has been moved up to defensive end.
As you can see, it'll be up to a new crop of linebackers to step in and fill the void. How will they respond for defensive coordinator and LBs coach Ty Gregorak?