MISSOULA — Montana football players reported to campus on Sunday and start practices on Tuesday as Bobby Hauck begins the second year of his second stint leading his alma mater.
The Griz are coming off a 6-5 season in which they went 4-4 in conference play. They suffered their first three-game losing streak to in-state rival Montana State since 1985, failed to make the playoffs for a third consecutive year and ended the season with the first three-game losing streak in Washington-Grizzly Stadium history.
Montana’s struggles came from inexperience and lack of depth on the offensive line, failure to convert short-yardage third and fourth downs, fumble issues and an inability to hold on to leads late in games. Those issues coalesced in the fourth quarter and final offensive play of the last game when Montana fumbled on the goal line with a possible playoff spot on the line.
With a new year comes renewed optimism.
“I feel really good about this year,” senior quarterback Dalton Sneed said at the Big Sky Kickoff last month in Spokane. “Our offseason’s been great. We’ve been focusing on the negatives from last year and really honing in on our craft to get things taken care of. So, it’s been a great offseason for us.”
On paper, Montana looks like it could be more competitive this season, returning 10 starters on offense, eight on defense and two on special teams. They’ve added nine transfers, seven of whom will join the team in the fall and compete for playing time at positions of need.
The Griz, however, have a tough schedule. They were picked to finish fifth in the league and will play each of the four teams which were selected ahead of them: at UC Davis and Montana State, and hosting Eastern Washington and Weber State. Then there’s the non-conference games at Oregon and South Dakota, and home dates against North Alabama and Monmouth.
“I really like the chemistry and the personality of this team,” Hauck said at media days. “I don’t have a great feel on how we’re going to be in terms of how good we’ll be, how well we’ll do this year. But I really like being around this team, so I’m just excited to get going and be back with them.”
Montana will hold 15 practices that are open to the public leading up to game week. All practices prior to game week will take place at Dornblaser Field and will be free to attend.
Here are five storylines to follow during fall camp.
How deep could the offensive line be?
Junior college transfer Kordell Pillans began carving out a starting spot at guard during spring camp. Could Moses Mallory do the same as the other guard after transferring from junior college last month? The Griz already replaced retired center Cody Meyer with Cy Sirmon during the spring, and they bring back starting tackles Colton Keintz and Conlan Beaver as well as guard Skyler Martin, who took over late for returner Angel Villanueva. Then there’s Dallas Hart, Cole Sain, Sean Anderson, Brandon Scott and others to help Montana develop depth to give Sneed time and the running backs lanes.
Who gets the carries?
Speaking of running backs, Montana has a host of players to carry the ball, as long as they hold onto it. The 2018 starter, Adam Eastwood, is back after running for 514 yards in his first year since transferring from San Diego State. Junior college transfer Marcus Knight came on strong during the second half of spring camp, displaying his speed and explosiveness. Then there’s redshirt freshmen Drew Turner of Glacier, Levi Janacaro of Big Sky and potentially Eureka grad Garrett Graves. If all else fails, Sneed can carry the ball if needed, running for a team-best 675 yards last year.
How does the defensive front develop?
Montana lost two defensive line starters, had players step up in the spring and added transfers. Among the newcomers are Rocky Mountain College grad transfer Ryder Rice, former North Carolina State defensive end Joe Babros and ex-Washington State edge rusher Mason Vinyard. The Griz would be helped if tackle Alex Gubner and edge rusher Cole Grossman, who both showed flashes in the spring, build on that along with Eli Alford and Braydon Deming. If they do, maybe Jesse Sims could bounce out to his natural position on the end opposite of RJ Nelson and Jed Nagler, who was injured in November.
Who rises above at cornerback?
Montana brought in two cornerback transfers in Raeshawn Roland from junior college and Mykal Tolliver from Hawaii. They’ll try to earn a starting spot or add much-needed depth, pushing the returners along the way and potentially making them better. The Griz could use that competition at a thin group that brings back two starters in Dareon Nash and Justin Calhoun, who are both converted wide receivers, as well as backup Josh Egbo. Then there’s Kadeem Hemphill, who didn’t play last fall but announced his presence during spring camp by breaking up passes and could be in line for playing time.
Who handles the kicking and punting duties?
Montana will have a new starting kicker and punter this season. Glacier grad Brandon Purdy, the 2017 starter, and Montana State transfer Gabe Peppenger, a Sentinel grad who sat out last fall, split field goal and extra-point kicking duties during spring camp when 2018 starter, Tim Semenza, declined to return for his final season because he took a job. Punters Adam Wilson and Butte grad Nate Morin-Ferguson split duties in the spring as Montana replaces Eric Williams. The Griz return their kickoff and punt returners, but it’ll be interesting to see who gets the reps where for Hauck, a special teams guru.