Lights out to avoid injuries in spring practice
No matter what any football coach says about his hopes for spring football practice, it is always followed by one last comment, "we just don't want anyone to get hurt."
After battling injuries all last season, Montana State University-Northern football coach Walt Currie says it after just about every sentence.
Currie isn't superstitious enough to knock on wood, but there was time earlier the spring he was seriously considering it. It seemed that this spring season was going to follow the same injury-riddled path that the fall had with five players going down early with injuries, three of which looked to be serious knee injuries.
It hasn't been often since the reinstatement of football, but the Lights had a few rays of good luck shine on them as none of the injuries required surgery.
With the early injuries past them, the Lights have reached the midway point during the spring season intent on preparing for the 2003 season.
"It's actually going pretty well right now," Currie said. "The injuries were a concern at first. We've had enough of them during the season. But we're really getting some things done."
Perhaps nowhere else in the Frontier Conference is spring practice more critical. The Lights graduated the largest senior class of any school in the Frontier and now must find replacements to fill some very big holes.
"This is probably the most important spring we've had," Currie said. "We have so many positions open."
The biggest holes are definitely on the defensive side where graduation seriously depleted the defensive line and linebacking corps.
Northern is practicing with an entirely new defensive line this spring. Standout defensive tackle Steve Spangler, all-conference defensive end Kino Detrick and fellow defensive end Will Barrett were all seniors last season while junior all-conference defensive tackle Bomont Somerfeld is sitting out spring practice with a foot injury. "We didn't just lose players on the D-line," Currie said. "We lost some some top caliber players, who were as good as anyone in the conference."
The Lights will also have new faces at all three linebacker positions. One of those faces is relatively familiar. Last season's starting strong safety Brendan Scott has been moved to outside linebacker.
"Brendan Scott has been looking really good," Currie said. "He seems to have made the transition pretty easily."
The secondary will also be fairly young. Gone is three-year starter Bryan Kott at cornerback as is free safety Brenden Dennehy, who decided not to play football this season. But Currie believes that he has some solid young players returning.
Junior Nathan Walters is back after having anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. Walters did tweak the knee a week ago in practice, but Currie said he will be fully healthy for fall practice. Senior Bill McGuire, who started in Walters place last season, is also out after having shoulder surgery. That leaves several redshirt freshman and sophomores getting most of the turns this spring.
"They're getting a lot of work which is good," Currie said. "It will only help them."
Currie has been impressed with the play of Robert Ebeling and Jordan Dassinger while freshman Cort Milks is pushing for the starting spot at free safety.
On the offensive side, no position is drawing more attention than the quarterback position. With the loss of Brandon Kerkes to graduation and the transfer of freshman Mitch Wilkins, the quarterback depth chart consists of one quarterback and a receiver.
However, the one quarterback has been one of the best players of the spring. Redshirt freshman Neill Crandell of Scobey is the lone returning quarterback from fall practice. But according to Currie, Crandell hasn't let the lack of competition temper his work ethic.
"Neill is a real student of the game," Currie said. "He's been watching a ton of film with all of the position groups, even the linemen. He's the kind of kid you want at quarterback."
The time in the film room has paid off for Crandell. He is making plays with both his arm and his feet and most importantly to Currie, he's not turning the ball over.
"He's a very intelligent kid and he's making good decisions," Currie said. "He's also pretty elusive and a lot faster than people realize. He's dangerous in the open field and people don't seem to get a good hit on him,"
Northern must also replace several starters on the offensive line. Only starting Pat Gardner returns from last season. The Lights must replace center Acey Koshatka, All-American tackle Martin Leibrand, all-conference guard Colter Epler and standout tackle Rob Wynegar.
However, Currie feels that there are some solid young players ready to step in.
"A lot of the linemen have been patiently waiting their turn behind those seniors," Currie said. "They are pretty anxious to get out there."
Sophomore Garrett Kirpach was looking particularly strong before going down with a knee injury. It wasn't serious enough to warrant surgery and he will be full strength come fall. Besides Kirpach, Currie has been pleased with the play of Lowell Hahn, Levi Wesche, Kellen Lake and Havre native Mike Schnittgen.
"Wesche and Lake have shown promise and Lowell's been waiting for this," Currie said. "Mike Schnittgen has lost some weight and came back much quicker and faster."
Northern returns plenty of experience in its offensive skill players. Fullbacks Ryan Utterback and Chad Olsen return. Slotback Bill Templer isn't participating in spring ball but will be back in the fall which means freshmen Colt High and Tanner Cochrell will be seeing most of the reps.
The receivers return top playmaker in Tanner Woodward along with solid young receivers in Kris Marshall, Nick Arnold and Clint Herrera.
"We have some experience there and it has shown," Currie said. "They've been making some plays."
As a whole, Currie has been happy with the way his young players have performed this spring.
"We thought that our redshirt class would be pretty tough," Currie said. "The attitude of the whole team has been really good."
Northern will not scrimmage this Saturday because of Easter weekend, but the Lights will scrimmage next Saturday at 8 a.m. at the Lights practice field and again on Wednesday night at the Blue Pony practice field.