Scrimmage #2: A Look at the Tight Ends


There is almost always question marks at one or more positions when fall camp begins, and one of those for the University of Montana Grizzlies when they started practice on August 5 was the tight end spot.

That was due to the loss of senior starter Clay Pierson and his touchdown-catching back-up, sophomore Jordan Harper.  Those two combined for nine touchdowns last season.  Pierson had 17 grabs for five scores, while Jordan had four TD catches on just nine receptions.

This year’s group of tight ends, coached by Ross Brunelle, now in his seventh season overall at his alma mater (2007), runs the gamut as far as experience goes.

Leading the way are senior Mitch Saylor (6-5, 235, 3V) and redshirt freshman Mike Ralston (6-5, 245, from Oregon City, Ore.).
Also expected to contribute this season are junior college transfer Jermaine Jones (6-2, 225 from Oakland, Calif.), and redshirt freshmen Josh Horner (6-4, 230 from Great Falls) and Cooper Sprunk (6-4, 250, from Tigard, Ore.).

Saylor, from Vancouver, Wash., who was moved from wide receiver to tight end last spring, is the only player who has caught a pass for the Griz in the past.  Last season he had 8 catches for 88 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Mitch Saylor (UM Photo by Todd Goodrich)“I am really excited to be able to play; because last year I had surgery so I am excited to get on the field again,” Saylor said.  “Some things are different (playing tight end after being at wide receiver).  There are a lot of similarities that carry over to an extent.”

Ralston played at the same high school as Griz senior quarterback Jordan Johnson and redshirt freshman linebacker Connor Strahm at Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore.   Ralston caught just a few passes at Sheldon his senior year, but he led the team with 18.5 tackles for as a defensive end for the 14-0 Irish squad that won Oregon’s Class 6A state championship.

“I think it’s been great so far,” said Ralston, whose high school coach was Marty Johnson, Jordan’s dad.  “Last year being a redshirt down on the scout team I got to go against (defensive ends) Wags (Zack Wagenmann) and Tyrone (Holmes) each and every day and it definitely helped me get a lot better.

“It kind of threw me into the thick of things because I was going against two great guys,” Ralston continued.  “Wags is more-than-likely going to be an All-American this year and the same with Tyrone.  Each and every day going against the best guys, it’s only going to make me better.”

“Mike’s (Ralston) doing an awesome job,” Saylor said.  “He’s coming in with no game-time experience, and he’s improving every day, so I think he is very promising for us.

Jones is a transfer from Laney College, where he played wide receiver last season.  He had two touchdown catches in Laney’s 29-14 EastBay Bowl win over Diablo Valley College.

Sprunk was a starter two seasons ago at Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore., when his senior team went 12-3 and lost in the 6A semifinals to Sheldon High School, 35-28.

The versatile Horner was moved to quarterback from tight in the fall of 2012 at C.M. Russell High School, and he threw for 1,392 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 1,036 yards and 17 scores.  He caught 4 passes for 67 yards and a score before the position change.

“I am really happy with the guys this fall,” said Brunelle, who is also UM’s co-special teams coordinator.  “They’ve taken a step forward since the spring, and with the addition of Jermaine we’ve really rounded that group and we’ve had a really good fall camp so far.

“Besides Mitch and Mike, who are running with the one (number one offense), Cooper is pushing for playing time, as are Jermaine and Josh,” Brunelle said.

“We’re really happy with the progress those guys have made,” said Griz head coach Mick Delaney.  “We moved Mitch from outside to the inside, and he really brings a lot to the table in the passing game.  Mike Ralston has had a very good pre-fall and is a prototypical tight end.

“JJ (Jones) is going to be fine,” said Delaney.  “We’re happy to have Josh Horner back – I think he will help us.  Probably the biggest surprise of all of them is Cooper Sprunk.  Cooper has had a great pre-fall and made a lot of catches.   Going in we had a lot of question marks on how we would hold up there, and after a little more than a week, I think we’re going to be fine.”

“We’ve got a lot of play-makers coming back,” Saylor said when asked about his thoughts on UM’s offense.  Jordan’s (Johnson) back, Ellis (Henderson, a junior wide receiver).  I am excited about our overall potential on offense.”

“We talked about it last spring and we talked about it this fall – we have to have a role as tight ends in our offense, and we have to have a significant role if we’re going to be a good offense,” Brunelle said.  “I think the offense is miles ahead of where it was last spring and we just keep getting better every day.

“For us, with Mitch coming over from wide receiver and with three young guys, the one thing we need to continue to work on is physicality,” Brunelle said.  “We’ve got to be able to come out and be physical and drive guys off the ball in our ruin game, and just really be play-makers by making plays when the ball is thrown to us.”

FALL CAMP/GRIZ NOTES: Practice number 11 of fall camp is in the books, as the team was in action this morning in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.  The biggest play on offense came in skelly, with senior quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass to Sprunk.  Senior free safety Matt Hermanson had a nice leaping interception for the defense.

After skelly drills this morning the team worked on their overtime offense.  The defense dominated the overtime periods, with senior tackle Trevor Rehm (Dillon) and Wagenmann (Missoula) each getting a sack, while sophomore cornerback Tyrel Garner (Henderson, Nevada) had a pick.  Junior kicker Chris Lider kicked a 46-yard field goal in the second overtime.

GRIZ STATS & FACTS: There are just days to go until Montana’s 2014 season opener at Wyoming.  Griz-Cowboys Notes: The last time Montana played Wyoming was Oct. 4, in 1997, the Cowboys winning 28-13 in Laramie.  It was UM’s fifth game that season and its first loss.  The Griz attempted 52 passes and completed just 20 for 195 yards and were picked off four times.  Linebacker Jason Crebo led Montana with 13 tackles.  The Griz went 8-4 that season and lost 19-14 at McNeese State in a first-round 1-AA playoff game.  The Cowboys went 8-5 that season.  UW leads the series 13-0.

There are 12 former Griz players in NFL camps right now:

Player, Pos., Current Team, Years at UM

  • Colt Anderson, Safety, Colts, 2004-08
  • Kroy Biermann, DE, Falcons, 2004-07
  • Dan Carpenter, K, Bills, 2004-07
  • Brock Coyle, LB, Seahawks, 2009-13
  • Trumaine Johnson, DB, Rams,            2008-11
  • Danny Kistler, OT,  Raiders, 2010-13
  • Marc Mariani, WR/Ret., Titans, 2006-09
  • William Poehls, OT, Titans, 20010-13
  • Chase Reynolds, RB, Rams, 2008-10
  • Jabin Sambrano, WR/Ret., Falcons, 2008-11
  • Jordan Tripp, LB, Dolphins, 2009-13
  • Jimmy Wilson, DB, Dolphins, 2004-06, 11

Griz practice schedule the rest of the week:

  • Thursday, Aug. 14: Two-a-days, practice at 8:30 a.m. & 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, Aug. 15: One a-day, practice at 9:40 a.m.
  • Saturday, Aug. 16: Scrimmage #2, 10:10 a.m. in WGS.
  • Sunday, Aug. 17: No practice.  Review scrimmage tape 7:00 p.m.