Fall Camp Report #6: Johnson Starting For Third Season at Quarterback

By DAVE GUFFEY for GoGriz.com

Jordan Johnson, one of the key players to the University of Montana football program’s past and most recent successful seasons, is returning in 2014, which will be his third year as a starter.

The 6-1, 195-pounder from Eugene, Ore., is 20-6 as a starter, and ranked among the career passing leaders in school history as he enters his senior season.

Johnson, a Walter Payton Award candidate this season, has gone 20-6 as a starter, and had to learn a new offensive system a year ago when it was installed by Kefense Hynson and Scott Gragg, UM’s co–offensive coordinators.  The new system was a big change for “JJ.”

“It was hard, for sure,” said Johnson following today’s morning practice.  “It’s a lot of under center stuff, which I have never really done.  It’s more play action type of stuff.  So, that was a little bit of an adjustment, but I thought we did really well on offense for the most part (last season).  We were a little inconsistent at times, but when we got things going we were rolling.

“I feel pretty good – I was rusty at first,” said Johnson who is currently ninth in school history with 5,831 career passing yards.  “But, I think that’s to be expected at the beginning of fall camp.  I feel like I am in a rhythm now, and I am excited to go down to Laramie (UM’s opener August 30 at Wyoming).  We definitely have a tough schedule, but playing in the Big Sky every year is going to be a tough schedule no matter what.  It’s how you react to tough times that makes you a championship team.”

Jordan Johnson (Photo by Todd Goodrich, UM)

Jordan Johnson | Photo by Todd Goodrich, UM

“JJ’s first year in the offense was a good one,” Hynson said.  “I think, though, there is still room for him to grow as a player learning the system and getting a little more comfortable with it.  He’s been able to progress from where he was at in the spring.  He’s playing at a really high level, and I am excited about it.

“Some of it is just the offense and terms of the style that we run,” said Hynson, when asked if Johnson had less options running the ball in the new offense.  “He protected himself more in terms of running the ball and picking up yards with his legs.  That’s something we may do more of.  But, in our system, the quarterback’s primary job is to distribute the ball.  We all know that he is more than a capable runner.”

The Grizzlies also have an experienced back-up in Shay Smithwick-Hann, a 6-4, 219-pound senior from Kalispell, who has played in 20 career games and started three times.

Smithwick-Hann, who had a stellar prep career at Glacier High School, where as a junior and senior he passed for more than 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns, and was coached by former (1988-90) UM starting quarterback Grady Bennett.  Smithwick-Hann is an outstanding student, maintaining a 3.97 GPA as a finance major.

“I think for me personally it’s all about staying ready, whether it’s fall camp or during the season – you never know when your name is going to be called,” said Smithwick-Hann, who has passed for 1,027 yards and 10 TDs in his career at UM.  “You’ve got all Griz Nation counting on you.  You’ve got your teammates counting on you.  It’s a position that you’ve always got to be ready, no matter what happens.

“They’re putting more onus on the quarterback this year, and I think that any time I have more responsibility before the snap I think that works out to my advantage,” Smithwick-Hann said.  “Playing quarterback this year, I think we are more involved in the run game and in the protection game.  I think that is something that I understand, and I have a great grasp of this offense.

Two young players, Brady Gustafson and Makena Simis, are competing for playing time as well.  True freshman Will Weyer, a 6-5, 208-pounder from Bozeman, will redshirt in 2014.

“Right now those guys are all competing for a second and third spot,” Hynson said.  “I think all three of them bring different things to the table.  Shay, from an experience factor, is a step ahead of those guys, in terms of the mental game.  He’s played, and he’s done it.

Shay Smithwick-Hann (Photo by Todd Goodrich, UM)

Shay Smithwick-Hann | Photo by Todd Goodrich, UM

“Brady Gustafson has a very strong arm and is probably a little more athletic in the pocket than people might think,” Hynson said; “so he’s got some stuff.  Makena, in terms of the overall physical package, is really what you want in terms of athleticism, and he can throw the ball.

“The thing that he (Simis) and Brady haven’t done is to play a lot of football at this level,” Hynson added.  “So they’ve got to catch up from a mental standpoint.  But, I feel comfortable in terms of the future with those three guys for sure, and obviously Shay is a senior, but his role right now as our number two is just to be ready at the drop of a hat.  The other two guys just have to keep progressing and learning but I do think that when they get handed the ball in their careers, they will be more than capable.”

Gustafson (6-7, 235) was Montana’s Class AA MVP on offense as a senior at Billings West when he passed for almost 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.  He left West as the school’s all-time leading passer with 6,202 yards.

From Boise, Idaho, Simis (6-2, 210), racked up 5,085 total yards and 51 touchdowns, while playing for his dad and head coach, Todd Simis, at Capital High School.

Weyer also had a prolific prep career in the Treasure State, and led Bozeman High School to the state AA championship in 2013.  The Hawks were runners-up his junior season.

UM’s quarterbacks have been working with some younger players in fall camp, as All-America candidate Ellis Henderson has been out with an illness, and fellow junior Chase Naccarato is hurt, while senior Sean Haynes is still recovering from surgery.

“We have probably three of our best receivers out right now with injuries or illness, and you know that  just means that the younger guys are going to have to step up, and guys like (redshirt freshman) Josh Janssen have done that and they’ve excelled,” said Johnson, who was a third team all-conference pick last season.  “That just shows what kind of program that we have here, than when we are losing three of our best receivers we have guys step up who are making plays.

“I think we are doing pretty good,” Johnson said when asked how he thought the offense was progressing.  “We are going up against one of the best defensive fronts in the nation, and we’re really, really inexperienced on the offensive line.  So we’re going to struggle at times, but it’s just going to make us better going against those guys.”

“I think early on you could tell we were missing some key guys, but as fall camp progressed those guys that are new have gotten a lot better,” Smithwick-Hann said.  “They’ve made a lot of strides and we can count on them.  Even if those (injured) guys come back, they are one play away from getting in.

“Offensively I feel like we are getting better every day,” Smithwick-Hann said.  “Guys like Janssen and (sophomore) Ryan Burke have really stepped up and made plays at the wide receiver spot.  Skill position wise, I think we’ll be set, no matter who is out there.”

The final two-a-day session is Wednesday, Aug. 20, with practices starting at 8:30 a.m. (Riverbowl) and 7:30 p.m. (WGS).

GRIZ CAMP/NOTES: At the conclusion of Monday night’s practice, head coach Mick Delaney and safety/co-special teams coach Jake Cookus did the “ALS” Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge.

The ALS Association is the only national non-profit organization fighting Lou Gehrig’s Disease on every front.  According to the groups web site, as of today it “has received $22.9 million in donations, compared to $1.9 million during the same time period (July 29-Aug. 19).  These donations have come from existing donors and 453,210 new donors to the Association.”

Delaney and Cookus were both doused with ice water while taking a knee on the Grizzly bear logo located at mid-field in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, as the entire team, coaches, and support staff watched.

Cookus issued a challenge to his football coaching counterpart at the University of Idaho, Ronnie Lee, who is the defensive coordinator/safety coach there; while Delaney challenged Timm Rosenbach, the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at UNLV to participate in the challenge.

Former Griz starting defensive tackle Alex Bienemann was also at Monday evening’s practice, and will serve as a student assistant coach this season.  Bienemann started all 13 games last year and was seventh on the team with 51 tackles, and he was a second team All-Big Sky pick.

Some of the highlights from this morning’s “Team” drills at the Riverbowl practice site:

  • A 64-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Jordan Johnson to freshman redshirt wide receiver Josh Janssen.
  • A 22-yard completion between Johnson and junior wide-out Jamaal Jones.
  • Johnson also threw two passes to redshirt freshman tight end Mike Ralston, the first for 10 yards, and the second was good for an 8-yard TD.  It was the Sheldon High School connection, as both players were stars at that school in Eugene, Oregon.

Some nice plays at last night’s (Monday, Aug. 19) practice in the stadium:

  • Stephen Shaw looks like he is close to mid-season form, as the junior punter from Boise had four punts of 50 yards or longer.
  • Senior wide receiver Kevin Berland (Missoula) had three catches in “Skelly” drills, as did true freshman Reese Carlson (Gig Harbor, Wash.).  Berland wears number 84, while Carlson is number 85.
  • Kickers Chris Lider, Harrison Greenberg, and Daniel Sullivan all connected on 42-yard field goals.
  • Nose tackles Tonga Takai and Nate Bradley registered tackles for loss, as did junior end Addison Owen.
  • Redshirt freshman linebacker Connor Strahm had an interception, as did senior free safety Matt Hermanson.

GRIZ STATS & FACTS: Last year Johnson was ninth in the FCS in passing efficiency (154.7) and 21st in total offense (271.9 ypg).  Montana was 14th in the nation in scoring (37.7 ppg); 15th in total offense (453.1 ypg); 23rd in passing offense (267.9 ypg); and 39th in rushing offense (185.2 ypg).  The Grizzlies were intercepted just five times last season, which ranked them third in the FCS.

Last season Johnson had five touchdown passes at North Dakota, and he had four TD throws against Portland State and Coastal Carolina.  He is ranked fifth in school history with 53 touchdown passes.