|« Georgia Southern looking for a seventh national title||App. State's Beasley, Charlotte's Mullen talk about things to come »|
Position-by-position Grizzly breakdown
Donning the maroon and silver practice jerseys, players showed flashes of brilliance at this year’s fall camp – a comforting sight for a team that finished a dismal 7-5 last year and missed the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades. With the 2011 season opener at powerhouse Tennessee in Knoxville looming, the University of Montana football team looks to redeem itself by navigating a path back to the top of the Big Sky Conference and FCS. The Grizzlies boast talent on the depth charts, but lack experience after the departure of last season’s lauded senior class.
Despite the season opener nearing, the quarterback situation is still murky as a bevy of antsy young signal-callers aim to take the first snap behind center Stephen Sabin.
Sophomore Jordan Johnson looks to have the edge as starter with solid footwork and a smooth throwing motion. Junior Gerald Kemp, who saw time as a running back last season, is also competing for the quarterback spot. Kemp, arguably Montana’s best athlete on offense, presents a dual-threat at QB – an effortless throwing motion and the speed to compliment it – and is possibly the Grizzlies’ best counter to Montana State’s do-it-all quarterback Denarius McGhee this year.
Kemp was moved to running back last season and was UM’s second leading rusher as a running back and QB in the wildcat formation, gaining 224 yards on 45 carries, but he has yet to score a touchdown.
With Johnson and Kemp both showing skill and poise, don’t be surprised to see a two-quarterback system used if one struggles to find a rhythm.
With Montana’s all-time touchdown king Chase Reynolds taking his talents to the St. Louis Rams, the Griz backfield will look quite a bit different this year.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Canada and junior Peter Nguyen will see most of the carries this year. With Canada seeing no playing time last year and Nguyen seeing very little, both will look to make a splash on offense.
Also, look for 5-foot-11, 235-pound beast Dan Moore to see more time on offense as a fullback, plowing through lines in short-yardage situations.
Grizzlies’ head coach Robin Pflugrad said it may take multiple backs to achieve the team’s offensive production this year.
The offensive line struggled last year with inexperience and had a tough time working as a unit. This year should be different with three honors candidates forming the pocket.
Sabin, a 300-pound senior, will get the nod at center and seniors Charles Burton and Jon Opperud will start at right and left tackle.
William Poehls and Danny Kistler Jr., 320 pounders who saw substantial action as freshmen in 2010, will start as guards.
The offensive line will see fresh faces consistently, however, stemming from UM’s hurry-up offense.
Junior Jeremy Lapan and freshman Trevor Poole should see the field as tackles, sophomore Jordan Hines and Kjelby Oiland at guard, and Logan Hines and Jake Hendrickson will see time at center.
Jabin Sambrano, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior speed demon, will lead this year’s talented receiving corps as arguably Montana’s best unit, rivaling an unprecedented depth at linebacker.
Sambrano, an All-America candidate who caught 39 passes last fall for 584 yards and three touchdowns, will lead the cast with junior Sam Gratton, seniors Antwon Moutra and C.J. Atkins, and junior Bryce Carver.
Moutra, who transferred from UCLA, caught 36 passes for 600 yards and a team-high six TDs last year while Gratton, an honors candidate, had 28 catches and four touchdowns last season. The two will be mainstays in what could be a potent spread offense this year.
Honors candidates tight ends Greg Hardy and Kavario Middleton — who are both standout talent — might be early favorite targets for either Johnson or Kemp since the typical tight end short post routes should help the young quarterbacks find offensive cadence in the early-going.
Last year’s defensive line was built around size with anchors Tyler Hobbs and Severin Campbell. This year’s defensive line is full of speed and looks primed to step up.
Led by 265-pound senior Bryan Waldhauser, the D-line will continue to be a benchmark for the Grizzlies. Waldhauser led the team in sacks last season with five.
Bobby Alt and Ryan Fetherston, like Waldhauser, are honors candidates, and will look to forge a violent attack on Big Sky QBs this season.
The defensive line also got a big morale boost with the return of quiet but ferociously talented Josh Harris – much to the delight of Pflugrad.
Harris, a junior from Kalispell, missed last season with an Achilles tendon injury and then fought a sore hamstring in camp, but appears ready to go.
Freshman Zack Wagenmann, a 2010 Sentinel graduate, has looked ready to step in as well.
This year’s linebacking unit is unprecedented in virtually every category: size, speed, agility and depth.
Senior Alex Shaw and junior Jordan Tripp will roam between the sidelines and senior Caleb “Dirty” McSurdy, a 240-pound Boise, Idaho native, will anchor the linebackers.
McSurdy led the team last year with 112 tackles, while Tripp recorded 99. Shaw struggled with injuries last year but is expected to return to form this year.
Junior Josh Stuberg and sophomores John Kanongata’a and Brock Coyle are expected to contribute this season, too.
Senior kicker Brody McKnight, a second team all-league pick last year, will handle the brunt of the kicking duties for the season. McKnight had a stellar fall camp, capping it off with a 53-yard field goal in the team’s final scrimmage last Thursday.
McKnight made 14 out of 18 attempted field goals last season and also did most of the punting. He ranks seventh in career scoring at UM with 271 points, and shared the 2010 team MVP award with Reynolds.
Senior Sean Wren, who had a fine sophomore campaign but struggled last year, ultimately relinquishing the punting tasks to McKnight, is vying to reclaim the starting spot at punter.
The speedy Nguyen, who has shown flashes of speed and vision the past two seasons in the return game, is back, but Sambrano could also get a chance fielding punts.
Despite featuring Montana’s best player, and arguably the best athlete to ever sport the maroon and silver, Trumaine Johnson, the secondary took serious losses with the graduation of Jimmy Wilson, who is now with the Miami Dolphins, Erik Stoll and Brandon Dodson.
Returning starter and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Johnson will be starting for the fourth season in a row, and is a staple at the corner position.
Johnson, who was named to numerous All-American teams last season, was ninth at UM last year with 44 tackles and second with four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Fellow senior Houston Roots will get the start at the opposing corner spot, edging fellow senior Donny Lisowski. Three-year letterman Mike McCord will start at strong safety and another senior, Andrew Badger, earned the berth at free safety. Badger played in 10 games a year ago and is a first-year starter.
Expect corner Sean Murray, who had a nice interception in the final fall scrimmage, as well as freshmen Matt Hermanson and Nate Harris, and junior college transfer Kevin Frank to see time in the secondary.
On paper, this year’s Montana Grizzlies look poised to return to pre-2010 form, but their success will hinge on quarterback play and coaching. That being said, the team will be playing with a collective chip on its shoulders after being picked to finish third in the Big Sky race behind Eastern Washington and Montana State.
By Daniel Mediate, Montana Kaimin