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Montana's Ongoing Competition
MISSOULA - From Miles City to Libby, whenever supporters wearing maroon and silver have gathered at coffee houses and sports bars to discuss matters pertaining to University of Montana football this spring and summer, one topic invariably rises to the forefront of the conversation.
Who will line up under center for the Grizzlies during the 2009 season?
Will it be Billings West product Andrew Selle or University of Oregon transfer Justin Roper?
Yes, it’s true, as coach Bobby Hauck is quick to point out, that there are 22 starters on a football team, not just one. And it’s equally true that the Grizzlies return 13 starters from a team that went 14-2 last season and missed winning the school’s third national championship by a single game.
And it’s true that senior wide receiver Marc Mariani - not Selle or Roper - was named the team’s offensive captain last week.
Yet all the banter seems to inevitably come back to the battle for the starting quarterback spot that began in spring practice and has continued throughout August, with neither player emerging as a clear frontrunner headed into Saturday’s season opener against Western State.
“Some guys are caught up in having to have a number one,” Hauck said. “I’m not one that believes that. I think we’ll be fine at quarterback. That’s not one of my big concerns.”
Since Hauck became head coach in 2003, the Grizzlies have thrived at quarterback with the likes of Craig Ochs (2003-04), Josh Swogger (2006) and, most recently, Cole Bergquist (2007-08) as starters. Bergquist may have been the most productive of the group, passing for 7,514 yards to rank fourth among UM’s career passing leaders.
When Roper transferred from Oregon, where he had been the winning quarterback in the Sun Bowl as a redshirt freshman in 2007 in his first collegiate start, it was widely assumed he had been chosen to be the heir apparent. Not so.
“I don’t feel like anything should be or is guaranteed at all,” Roper said. “But, I definitely want to get that starting job.”
People close to the program believe that the 6-6, 215-pound Roper may have the better physical skills and slightly stronger arm. But Selle, a redshirt junior who begins his fourth year in the program, has a better command of the offense.
“As a quarterback, you have to be a leader of the team on and off the field,” Selle said. “You have to take care of the football. You can’t turn the football over. You have to be a field general out there. You have to know what everybody’s doing.”
“This is my fourth year in the program, fourth year in the offense. So I feel very comfortable with the offense. I feel like I know it very well.”
After seeing limited action behind Bergquist in each of the last two seasons, it’s clear Selle hasn’t hung around this long to concede the starting job without a battle.
“At the end of the spring, I knew I was going to have to compete for a starting job come fall,” he said. “At that time, it was Jeff Larson (who has since moved to wide receiver). Now, it’s Justin. So, really, nothing’s changed.”
Both players have had their moments in the team’s two scrimmages. In the final scrimmage last week, Roper completed 10 of 13 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. Selle was 13-of-15 for 96 yards and two scores.
It’s more than likely that both Roper and Selle will see action in Saturday’s opener against Western State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium and again on Sept. 12, in the team’s first road game against Cal Davis. Both seem content with that scenario, but resigned to the fact that a No. 1 will eventually emerge.
“Any new quarterback that can step into an offense where you have guys like (running back) Chase (Reynolds) and Marc (Mariani) who have proven themselves … it’s very comforting to walk into a situation like that,” Selle said.
Yet it also adds to the pressure, knowing that whichever player is in the game must produce and that someone else is champing at the bit to take his place. Add to that the pressure of being picked to win the Big Sky Conference for a 12th consecutive season and a preseason ranking of No. 3 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“We like that pressure,” Selle said. “We know we’re going to have a target on our backs. We just have to go out and give our best every game.”
Roper played in six games last season at Oregon, before being sidelined by a knee injury. He completed 52.7 percent of his passes for 610 yards and three touchdowns. But new coach Chip Kelly was committed to running the spread offense and Roper felt he was the odd man out in the Ducks’ quarterback derby.
When Roper decided to leave Oregon, he looked for an offense better suited to his talents. UM wide receivers coach Robin Pflugrad had been on Mike Bellotti’s staff at Oregon and helped stear him to Missoula.
“In high school, I was a pure drop-back passer,” Roper said. “Then I went to Oregon and we ran the spread. This has kind of got a little of both.”
Reynolds, who enters his junior season as a Walter Payton Award candidate and second-team preseason All-American, is confident the Grizzlies can win with either signal caller.
“There’s a spot for the quarterbacks and they’re battling just like I’m battling at running back,” he said. “They’ll both work as hard as they can to get that spot and the better player will get it.”
Just who that player will be remains Missoula’s great ongoing mystery.
An ongoing competition
By MARK VINSON, The Helena Independent Record