The Montana Grizzlies made a deep run into the 2011 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. And even a loss to Sam Houston State in the FCS semifinals couldn’t dampen what was yet another great season in Missoula.
However, since almost the day after UM’s season came to an end, life in the Grizzly program has been anything but great.
The school and the football program became embroiled in a sexual assault scandal, which now has seen two current Griz players removed form the team and charged with rape, the program is under a current NCAA investigation and in the spring, head coach Robin Pflugrad and Athletic Director Jim O’Day were both fired as part of the most tumultuous offseason in the Griz’ storied history.
So, as a brand new season approaches, nobody is probably more happy for football season to be here than the Grizzlies and new head coach Mick Delaney.
“You always run into a situation in this business that requires a lot of togetherness from people on the inside,” Delaney said at the Big Sky Kickoff last month in Ogden, Utah. “As far as the coaches and players go, they’re going day by day, doing what the kids at Montana have always done, and that’s preparing to win a championship. Obviously, there are questions that are here every day that the players and coaches face. But they’ve been able to put those aside and do what they do.”
Despite the NCAA not yet releasing its finding on the football program, Montana will soldier on and is still one of the team’s to beat in the Big Sky Conference. However, a major loss to the program is would-be junior quarterback Jordan Johnson, an all-Big Sky selection in 2012, and a player who would have been considered a Walter Peyton Award candidate this season.
Replacing Johnson as the Grizzles open their season Saturday against the South Dakota Coyotes, is redshirt-freshman Trent McKinney. Though Delaney didn’t officially name McKinney the starter for Saturday, he appears to have won the job outright from Kalispell native Shay Smithwick-Han and Stanford transfer Adam Brzeczek. McKinney, like Johnson is an outstanding runner, maybe the fastest player on the Griz team and he was awarded Scout Team Player of the Year in 2012.
And while McKinney is suited to run Montana’s “Oregon-Style” spread-option attack, he’ll have a big learning curve. But luckily, he is surrounded by a veteran trio of running backs and a huge offensive line. Leading the way is senior Peter Nguyen, and fellow senior Dan Moore, both who are coming off big 2011 seasons. Nguyen led the Griz in rushing in 2011, but Moore, along with sophomore Jordan Canada, who is explosive in his own right, also got plenty of touches and will again this season.
And while the Griz are young at quarterback and veteran at running back, they have a talented mix at wide receiver. Senior Sam Gratton and junior Bryce Carver have plenty of experience, as does utility man Gerald Kemp. Tight end Greg Hard is also a big threat as well. But youngsters like speedsters Sean Haynes and Ellis Henderson, the tall Mitch Saylor and true freshmen Taylor Walcott and Chase Naccarato.
And while Montana’s offense is loaded with raw talent, the Grizzlies are equally as talented on the defensive side of the ball. However, they are also green in some area as 10 starters from last year’s defense, one of the best in the FCS, graduated.
Leading the way are the linebackers, led by junior Jordan Tripp, who missed most of last year with a shoulder injury. Tripp will now wear the coveted No. 37 jersey, and is joined by veterans like Brock Coyle, J.P. Kanongata’a and Josh Stuberg. Up front, the Griz return defensive ends Johns Harris and sophomore Zach Wagenmenn. Harris is the only senior on the defensive front, while the Griz are plugging in two new starters at tackle.
In the secondary, Montana returns perhaps its most productive defender in sophomore safety Matt Hermanson, who started much of 2011 as a true freshman. Bo Tully also returns to his starting position at safety, while Montana is breaking in a pair of new cornerbacks, and the Griz have a huge hole to fill there after the departure of four-year starter Trumaine Johnson, who is now playing with the St. Louis Rams. Montana must also replace four-year kicker Brody McKnight, so there are areas of concern as the Griz enter 2012 picked to finish third in the Big Sky.
And another concern is Montana’s tough schedule. For the first time in a long time, the Griz are playing an FCS-only schedule, including Saturday’s game against South Dakota and a week two trip to fellow FCS power Appalachian State.
And at the end of the day, Montana will still be Montana but at what level is the biggest question. A freshman QB, a rebuilt defense and plenty of off-the-field questionmarks make this the most interesting start to a season in recent Griz history.
“Our theme has been that we can’t dwell on what we can’t control,” Delaney said. And a lot of things that have happened, we have no control over. I don’t the assistant coaches don’t and the players don’t. Our focus has been one day at a time and lets make sure each day is productive and that we’re doing things to make us better than we were before.”
Montana opens its season Saturday at 1:35 p.m. the South Dakota Coyotes in Missoula.
2012 Grizzly Schedule
Sept. 1 vs South Dakota
Sept. 8 at Appalachian State
Sept. 15 vs Liberty
Sept. 22 vs North Arizona
Sept. 29 at Eastern Washington
Oct. 6 at Northern Colorado
Oct. 13 vs Southern Utah
Oct. 20 at North Dakota
Oct. 27 vs Idaho State
Nov. 3 at Weber State
Nov. 17 vs Montana State