Grizzlies hope to make quick transition under first-year head coach
By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon
It’s easy to trust an answer when it comes from a Rhodes Scholar candidate.
What’s the potential of this year’s Montana Grizzlies football team?
“With the new offense, all the athletes we have, the new coaching staff — I think we can do something special this year,” said Derek Crittenden, a former Whitefish Bulldog and this season’s co-captain for the Grizzlies.
Crittenden, in his fifth full year at UM and a starting defensive end, has high hopes for the Griz despite the large transition into first-year head coach Bob Stitt’s new system.
“Our mentality right now is just focused on getting prepared as much as we can. There is some confidence but nobody is satisfied. Everybody is willing to work hard and do everything it takes,” he said.
Crittenden won the 2015 President’s Award for highest GPA and has already graduated with a major in chemistry and minor in mathematics, earning UM’s nomination for the Rhodes Scholarship, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious fellowship program. This fall he will finish a minor in philosophy before moving on to graduate school.
But first he has one last football season to hopefully help the Griz regain the Big Sky Conference title.
“There is a sense of urgency for myself and all the other seniors,” he said.
Montana was picked third in the Big Sky Conference preseason coaches rankings. The Griz were also selected 12th in the nation in the preseason FCS coaches rankings, one slot behind Montana State.
The Griz kick off the season Aug. 29 at home against four-time defending FCS national champion North Dakota State in the first college football game of the season. The game will be televised on ESPN with Brent Musburger, a sports broadcasting legend who grew up in Billings, calling the game alongside Jesse Palmer. NDSU is ranked first in the FCS.
Montana is one of four Big Sky Conference teams kicking off the season in the top 25 of the FCS ranks. EWU is ranked sixth. Quarterback Jordan West takes over the Eagles’ offense, which led the nation in scoring with two-time Big Sky MVP Vernon Adams Jr. under center. Eastern’s offense is now headed by All-American wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who as a junior needs just three receptions to reach 200 for his career. Eastern opens up the season on Sept. 5 at Oregon, where Adams transferred. The Eagles will look to make their sixth trip to the playoffs in the past seven seasons.
The Grizzlies, who finished 9-5 overall, 6-2 in conference in 2014, return 23 starters. Montana enters its first season with Stitt at the helm and looks to earn a third-straight playoff bid. Stitt, who took over for the retired Mick Delaney, has become widely known for a fast-paced, fly-sweep offense.
Stitt appears to have settled on Brady Gustafson, a 6-foot-7 redshirt junior from Billings, as the team’s new starting quarterback. Gustafson will replace Jordan Johnson, who graduated as the school’s No. 3 all-time QB in terms of passing yards.
Does that make this year a rebuilding year in Washington-Grizzly Stadium? Only time will tell.
“I’m just excited,” Stitt said earlier this fall after practice, according to Montana Sports Information. “I’ve said that a million times, but: Are we going to walk out there and see a better team than we saw at the end of April? That’s what I’m excited about.”
Gustafson will have plenty of opportunities to throw the ball under Stitt’s “fly sweep” offense that earned his Colorado School of Mines teams national recognition.
Someone who could benefit most is senior wide receiver Jamaal Jones, who led the team in receiving last season with 1,044 total yards and eight TDs. Junior John Nguyen will also play a leading role in the rushing attack. He averaged 8 yards per carry in 2014.
Junior wide receiver Ellis Henderson is making his return to the team after a season ending stomach ailment in 2014. He received a spot on the third team all-conference list as both a wide receiver and kick returner. Joining Henderson on the third team list is senior cornerback Nate Harris, who was one of the top-20 pass defenders in the Big Sky last season with five pass breakups and an interception.
Defense was the strength of the Grizzlies last season as it advanced to the playoffs for the second straight season. This year’s defense should keep up that tradition with a few standouts to lead the way, including senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes and senior linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren, who has received several preseason accolades, including being named a STATS FCS preseason all-American.
Buzz and excitement spread throughout Washington-Grizzly Stadium last weekend during the team’s latest scrimmage. The offense appeared to be meshing together and figuring out the new system, and the defense made every play a challenge.
“It was a better game today,” Stitt said.
Gustafson was equally satisfied and optimistic about the days and weeks ahead.
“Just trying to get in stride with everybody on the offense,” he said. “Get 11 moving parts in unison, and I think if we can do that we’ll be pretty tough to beat.”