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Optimism reigns in Big Sky
What better way for fans to look forward to another dramatic race to the Big Sky Conference football championship than looking back to the league’s amazing past?
And who better to speak of the future of the league than one who has tasted all the best and worst the conference’s past has had to offer?
Thus it was appropriate Tuesday morning when Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer opened the Big Sky Preseason Football Coaches Call. The former successful coach at Eastern Washington and Montana State, whose tenure at the latter ended with his dismissal five years ago, was as upbeat and engaging as always as he bantered with media members from around the league.
“(If) you’ve been turned away from something you love to do and are forced to do something else for awhile, you develop an appreciation for something you love,” said Kramer. “The good thing at Idaho State is, they believe in me, they think I’m a good leader and here we go.”
Kramer and the league’s other eight coaches all spoke on the conference call, and to a man they said the venerable Big Sky, which turns 50 next year, figures to be stronger than ever.
“I really believe it is,” said Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers, entering his 14th season in Flagstaff. “So many positive things are happening at a lot of the universities … All you’ve got to do is look at facts, look at the personnel, and look at the coaching staffs at each program. It’s a great conference.”
Eastern Washington, which won the Big Sky’s sixth national championship last season, is among several conference clubs ranked in various polls dedicated to NCAA Football Championship Subdivision football. Montana State, which shared the Big Sky title with EWU a year ago, is ranked second to the Eagles in both preseason polls.
Teams from Montana, Sacramento State, Weber State and Northern Arizona are also expected to contend for the top.
“From top to bottom,” said Weber State coach Ron McBride. “(There are) a lot of proven teams and proven players.”
The Bobcats and fifth-year coach Rob Ash have one of the league’s most decorated players in sophomore quarterback DeNarius McGhee, voted the league’s preseason offensive player of the year. The Texas native passed for 3,163 yards and 23 touchdowns last fall.
“Every other season, we had a quarterback battle and controversy going into camp and this year we don’t,” said Ash. “It’s really satisfying. DeNarius is a great leader … There’s no doubt the timing in the passing game is excellent, because he’s a veteran and he’s coming back. It’s awfully nice.”
The Montana Grizzlies, meanwhile, are looking for a quarterback to emerge following the graduation of Justin Roper and Andrew Selle.
“It’s pretty much an open competition,” said Montana coach Robin Pflugrad of a quarterback group that includes Jordan Johnson, Nate Montana, Gerald Kemp and Shay Smithwick-Hann. Trent McKinney of Hawaii is a true freshman and the only other QB in the program, as former Shelby star Chase White decided not to join the Grizzlies.
“I think it’s a positive that we don’t play until September (UM’s opener is Sept. 3 at Tennessee), so we can iron things out at that position,” said Pflugrad, starting his second season with the Grizzlies. “We want to be fairly multiple (on offense) and obviously we want to be able to throw the ball downfield.”
Eastern Washington’s run to the national championship was led by quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, a former starter at Southern Methodist who in his first year with the Eagles passed for 3,496 yards and 37 touchdowns.
“He improved dramatically as the season went on,” said EWU coach Beau Baldwin. “We were looking for growth throughout the year … he showed that it was really impressive.
“How much better can he be? The sky’s the limit. He’s worked really hard and was a different guy in spring ball. It was night and day. We’re expecting big things.”
Veteran quarterbacks also return at Portland State (Connor Kavanaugh) and Sacramento State (Jeff Fleming).
Plus, NAU has a little extra incentive entering the season thanks to a $26 million renovation project at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff.
“It’s been an unbelievable undertaking, and it’s been amazing to watch,” said Souers. “Things off the field have never been better … We’re looking forward to the season with great optimism.”
If you’re looking for a longtime Big Sky Conference optimist, of course, Pocatello, Idaho, is the place to be. Kramer, who has won three league coach-of-the-year awards and has 77 career victories, which ranks fourth in league history, is glad to be back. He was dismissed in Bozeman following the drug-related arrests of an assistant coach and several players.
“It’s wonderful to be back in the conference,” he said. “This is my home. I love the longevity of our conference, the stability of our conference, the competitiveness of our conference as evidenced by Eastern Washington’s national championship and the longtime national prominence of the University of Montana. So I’m very, very proud to be a member of the Big Sky Conference.”
Kramer has a history of successful rebuilding projects in this league. He’s taking over an ISU program that has won as many as three league games just once since 2003 and is 2-22 in conference games the last three seasons.
Montana’s Pflugrad said the new Idaho State coach will likely be up to his old tricks on the sideline.
“I’ve known Mike for quite awhile and I respect what he did at Eastern Washington and Montana State,” said Pflugrad. “His teams always played hard. Mike’s going to take some chances; he’s going to probably coach out of the box a little bit. He’s so positive and has such a great sense of humor, that players have a lot of fun playing for him. And that’s going to bring other players to Idaho State.
“I’m very impressed with him as a coach and as a person,"Pflugrad said. “I think it will be a real positive move for Idaho State.”
By SCOTT MANSCH, Great Falls Tribune