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Center position a key concern for Montana State
In football, the quarterback is always the center of attention.
This spring for the Montana State Bobcats, though, the focus is simply on the center.
“The big question on our whole football team is the center position,” head coach Rob Ash said. “We’ve had some issues with center-quarterback exchanges and we just haven’t had great production there.”
The Cats, who continue spring drills this afternoon at 1 with a major scrimmage in Bozeman, are looking to replace graduated center Shaun Sampson, a Helena native and former MSU walk-on who became a reliable rock on the MSU offensive line.
“Believe it or not he’s the guy we’re really missing. That little walk-on who wound up becoming a great player,” Ash said. “But we’re making some progress.”
Veteran offensive linemen Matt Devereux, Quinn Catalano and Joel Horn are among the candidates to replace Sampson. So is redshirt freshman Christian Williams.
“To me that’s the biggest place on our team right now where we’ve got to find an answer and a good solid player. It’s still up for grabs,” Ash said.
The Bobcats, who will wrap up spring drills a week from today at the Triangle Classic scrimmage in Great Falls, have many talented players returning from last year’s 11-2 team, which earned a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Most of the key returning players are on offense. The task this spring has been to find replacements for departed stars like defensive end Caleb Schreibeis, defensive tackle Zach Minter, outside linebacker Jody Owens, cornerback Darius Jones and safety Joel Fuller. They were all multiple-year starters and Schreibeis, a former Billings West star, was named the Buck Buchanan winner as the top defensive star in all of FCS football.
“We were all concerned about what’s going to happen on that side of the ball, but our defense has played well this spring,” Ash said. “I’m really happy with the guys who are in the program, who have been here and studied. They’re ready to go now.”
In particular, Ash has been impressed with defensive end Preston Gale and linebacker Alex Singleton, who are slated to replace Schreibeis and Owens, respectively. Brad Daly is a returning star at the other defensive end, and middle linebacker Na’a Moeakiola is another honors candidate who returns to the lineup.
Among the newcomers who have impressed are Eryon Barnett, a junior transfer from Texas who has been shifted from cornerback to safety.
“That’s been a good move,” Ash said. “He’s replacing Beau Fuller.”
Sophomore defensive back Sean Gords has also looked very solid.
“He’s battled some knee problems and is finally healthy,” Ash said. “He’s taken that corner spot where Darius Jones and James Andrews were, and he’s played opposite (Deonte) Flowers this spring, and those two corners have played really, really well.”
Up front, there are still some issues.
“The biggest question is inside, where we lost Zach (Minter),” Ash said. “We’ve got some good hard-working guys in there, like Taylor Dees, Taylor Sheridan and Craig Ashworth. Also Nate Bignell … They’re playing really hard and it’s great to see.”
At linebacker, Aleksei Grosulak has suffered a leg injury for the third spring in a row. He had knee surgery recently.
“But he’ll be back in the fall,” Ash said. “It’s the third straight year Lexi’s been hurt. But he’ll be fine.”
There are many, many stars returning on offense, including receiver Tanner Bleskin of Great Falls, quarterback DeNarius McGhee and halfback Cody Kirk.
Ash said halfback Shon Johnson and tight end Tiai Salanoa have also looked strong this spring.
“The O-Line is what we’re working on,” Ash said. “We’ve got four guys back who have played a lot, with Catalano, John Weidenaar, Matt Devereux and Kyle Godecke. We’re looking at Alex Eekhoff at right tackle.”
The work in progress continues at today’s scrimmage, called the Sonny Holland Game in honor of the former Bobcat coaching legend.
“It will be very, very similar to a game,” Ash said. “We’ll put the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense on a team, and the 2 offense and 1 defense on the other. So it will be a Blue-White scrimmage, and when we’re playing it will be 1s vs. 1s and 2s vs. 2s.
“It’ll be a game-type flow. We’ll have some punts, and snapper-holder-kicker on field goals.”
Ash said McGhee and backup Jake Bleskin of Great Falls will be wearing red jerseys, signifying no contact. But he added that reserve quarterbacks Dakota Prukop and Mitch Griebel will be “live-go” for the scrimmage.
“We’re going to try to evaluate both offensively and defensively how we play with the quarterback run game, the zone-read game and the play-action game,” Ash said. “So those two kids will be live. That will be really good for us to see what’s going on.”
Ash said kicker Trevor Bolton has had a real good spring, but neither Lee Perkins (knee) nor Jake Olson (sitting out to concentrate on academics) are practicing this spring. All three are former Great Falls High stars.
Tanner Bleskin, a former C.M. Russell High star who will be a senior this fall, is having an impressive spring.
“Oh my gosh, he’s doing great,” Ash said. “When you look at our receiving corps now, with Tanner and (Brian) Flotkoetter and (UNLV transfer) Kurt Davis, we’re big. We’ve got some good, impressive physical size there. And our tight ends are big and rangy. Plus Jon Ellis, Shon Johnson and David Dash out of the backfield give us some speed. So I really like our tools on offense.
“If we can just get things sorted out up front I feel like we’re going to be pretty good.”
by Scott Mansch, Great Falls Tribune