By ERIC TABER
Upon first glance of the Montana Grizzlies’ pass-happy offense under head coach Bob Stitt, it might be easy for fans to forget about the running backs.
You wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that the days of dominant Montana rushers like Chase Reynolds or Lex Hilliard posting 1,000-plus-yard seasons in a pro-style offense are a thing of the past. After all, Stitt’s offense is geared toward breaking passing and receiving records, like Jamaal Jones did in 2015 when he broke the all-time school receiving record, not rushing records.
But it would be dangerous for fans and opposing teams to take a hard look at the 2016 Griz corps of running backs and not realize they are one of the most dangerous ingredients in the Bob Stitt offensive formula. They may not grab the headlines, but they are an indispensable cog in the gears.
“Pass protection is not glamorous,” says Griz running backs Coach Justin Green.
“The number one thing we want to make sure of is that any back who gets on the field is going to be able to pass protect. If they all have anything in common, it’s the ability to pick up the blitz. That’s something I demand. The rest is what they bring to the table as individual players.”
Led by senior John Nguyen, UM’s leading rusher last year with 855 yards on 184 carries, the Montana running backs are a talented and much-improved unit over the last year. Each individual holds different traits, applicable in different situations around the field.
Need to keep the defense honest by grinding out the yards in midfield? Nguyen is your man. Need to score a last-second TD from short range against North Dakota State? Joey Counts can do it. An explosive red zone running back? That’ll be Jeremy Calhoun.
“All of our top running backs are a little bit different, but John is a guy that is so solid and you trust him so much with everything you’re doing,” said Stitt. “He’s so smart, and even though he’s not the biggest back in the world, he can step up and do the job of pass protection.
“He’s a good runner and he’s a very good receiver out of the back field. It’s just great to have a guy like him leading the group, a guy that we really trust.”
Despite the Grizzlies racking up 3,647 yards in the air last season, and returning the NFL-caliber arm of Brady Gustafson with a host of talented wide receivers, the Montana running backs have been quietly productive over the course of the offseason.
In Saturday’s second scrimmage of camp, the Griz ran for 199 yards, divided mostly evenly between Nguyen, Counts, Calhoun and redshirt juniorTreshawn Favors, who has made big strides in the offseason and figures to be an important part of the running back puzzle in 2016.
“We’ve ran the ball really well,” says Green. “You have to look at our offensive line, the things they’ve done and the things that Coach Germer has taught them to get to the point they are now.”
“Whether it be Favors and his ability to slash and stick his foot in the ground, whether it be Calhoun’s power, whether it be John’s ability to make you miss, or whether it be Joey Counts‘ physical ability. Each back has their own individual thing they bring to the table and like I said, the pass protection is extremely important to what we do offensively, and something I think these guys tend to love a little bit, because it’s their opportunity to get physical with a guy,” he added.
After only seeing time in seven games in 2015, Favors is enjoying something of a breakout party in 2016. He led Montana with 59 yards rushing during the spring game back in April, and picked up 40 more yards during Saturday’s scrimmage on 13 attempts, the most carries on the team.
“I think for Tre it comes down to his offseason. He had an awesome summer this year, working with Coach Nicholson and putting on an extra coat of body armor. It’s helping him be physical in pass protection,” added Green.
Even with a solid corps of backs, Nguyen will lead the group from the front this season, and fighting for every yard he earns. Just as he has been doing since he arrived at Montana.
The younger brother of former Griz rusher Peter Nguyen, John has been a steady presence in the Montana backfield over the past two seasons, and now as a senior, leads by example for the relatively young group.
“It’s hard not to follow a guy that does everything right,” says Green. “He’s a guy who’s worked for everything that he’s got, not coming here on full scholarship and now being on full scholarship.
“We’ve tried to replace him every year and he’s done nothing but prove us wrong and start, and earn himself scholarship money. He’s the type of guy that you want on your team because he’s got a great story to tell. He’s our best pass protector, and he’s our smallest guy. He’s probably not the fastest guy, but he’s definitely the quickest guy that will make you miss in a phone booth.”
There’s little doubt that being a running back for the Grizzlies is sometimes a thankless task. But for the 2016 running backs, they’ve embraced their role and are ready to surprise people when their name is called.