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Grizzlies, including 44 letterwinners, start fall camp

by UM Sports Communications
| August 25, 2023 7:00 AM

The 2023 chapter of the Montana football story officially started Monday under clear summer skies in Missoula with the first official practice of fall camp, back in its traditional home under head coach Bobby Hauck at Dornblaser Field.

The Griz suited up with helmets but went without shoulder pads for the first of 18 NCAAallotted training camp practices. As always, spirits and energy were high with the opening of camp as UM worked through the first two-hour session of the season.

“Always excited for the start of fall, one, as a coach and, two, as a college football fan. This is our 12th season here, so this is fairly routine, but every day is different, which makes it exciting,” Bobby Hauck told the assembled media. “I’m anxious to get out here on the grass, do a little more team work, and get it going. I think our guys look good.”

Hauck’s Grizzlies enter the season as a relative unknown in the national scene, despite a top-25 ranking. With a new quarterback set to take the helm under a new offensive coordinator, and a new defensive coordinator set to lead a unit that lost three All-Americans last season, there are plenty of questions to be answered at fall camp. However, there is plenty of talent around the field to help answer them.

As of Monday, the path toward answering those questions, working toward a conference-record 19th championship and FCS-record 27th playoff appearance, is underway.

Montana has six returning All-Big Sky players and 14 returning starters from 2022, a group that includes the entire offensive line among eight total offensive returners and six from the defense.

The Griz also bring back 44 lettermen. It all starts up front this season as firstteam all-conference offensive guard Hunter Mayginnes and D-tackle Alex Gubner, another first-team returnee and a preseason all-conference pick, are back to lead the Grizzly lines.

Center AJ Forbes is another all-conference pick from a year ago who returns to lead up front, along with left tackle Chris Walker, who earned a spot on the East-West Shrine Bowl watch list as an NFL prospect.

Tight end Cole Grossman announced recently that he will miss this season, however, as he recovers from injury.

In the new, never-ending world of college recruiting, Hauck and his staff added 17 new players to the roster over the summer. Including the 14 high school seniors that signed on NLI signing day in February, UM welcomed 21 true freshmen to the squad Monday.

The transfer portal has been fruitful for the Griz as well, with 14 players with previous college experience coming to Missoula since the end of last season.

Montana was picked No. 14 in the preseason Stats Perform FCS media poll on Monday, the same spot the Griz were in at the conclusion of the 2022 season in January.

The Griz are one of six Big Sky Conference programs ranked in the media’s preseason top-25, with Montana State leading the way at No. 3, and UM will face four the five remaining teams. Montana travels to face UC Davis and Idaho, but gets home-field advantage against Sac State and MSU. Due to an unbalanced league schedule, the Griz won’t face Weber State in the regular season until 2024.

The Offense

Montana returns a combined 81 career starts on the offensive line this season, and the unit will be tasked with protecting a new QB this season following the graduation of last year’s starter Lucas Johnson.

In the mix to be the starting signal caller under coordinator Brent Pease are Sam Vidlak out of Boise State, Kris Brown and Clifton McDowell, who joined the team over the summer. Three freshmen are looking for reps, including Glacier High product Gage Sliter.

Vidlak impressed during spring ball with the Griz, spending the majority of his reps with the first team and going 11-of-15 passing for 152 yards and 2 TDs in the spring game.

Brown has been there and done that in two years as UM’s primary backup, starting 5 games and making 19 appearances. The Bozeman native will be looking to make the next step in his career during fall camp and earn the full-time starting position.

McDowell comes to UM after stops at Louisiana, Kilgore JC in Texas and Central Arkansas. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound native of Houston has the physical tools to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league and is likely to make a push for a starting position as well.

Whoever wins the starting position will have a gluttony of targets to throw to and experienced run-game options as well.

Billings Senior’s Junior Bergen has already proven to be one of the most versatile and explosive players in the FCS. He’s sure to be featured heavily in Pease’s offensive attack.

Aaron Fontes and Keelan White, two speedy receivers who had breakout seasons a year ago as backups, are likely to be a pair of the most dynamic receivers in the league as well. Sawyer Racanelli, who transferred to UM a year ago from Washington before suffering an injury, is another player to watch in the receivers’ room.

Montana’s running backs are perhaps the deepest group on the team. Senior Nick Ostmo had one of the best games ever by a UM running back last fall against Cal Poly with 221 yards and scored five TDs in a twogame span. Juniors Xavier Harris and Isiah Childs bulked up in the offseason and redshirt freshman Eli Gillman will look to feature regularly in the rotation after a breakout true freshman year.

The Defense

A four-year starter and, in Hauck’s opinion, one of the best defenders in the Big Sky, Gubner enters his senior season with the size, strength, and speed to earn All-America honors and perhaps a shot in the NFL.

At nose guard, he’ll be the centerpiece of a Grizzly defense tasked with replacing three All-Americans but is long on experience.

Newcomer Hayden Harris, a defensive end out of UCLA, impressed in the spring game, racking up seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2.5 TFLs for the maroon team in his UM debut.

Kale Edwards and Garrett Hustedt, both junior D-ends, combined for 38 tackles and 7 TFLs a year ago and will once again feature heavily in the end rotation along with Glacier High product Henry Nuce.

In the backfield, TraJon Cotton, Nash Fouch and Eureka’s Garrett Graves bring a wealth of experience with a combined 45 career starts among them.

Corbin Walker enters his senior year with 18 career starts at cornerback, while Gradney and Akron transfer Ronald Jackson also compete for starting time at corner.

Stay tuned to GoGriz.com throughout fall camp for updates, position, previews, interviews and more.

Montana has a long and proud history of producing NFL talent at the linebacker position under Hauck. Earlier this year FCS news site The Analyst updated its list of “The new U. in FCS college football” at both linebacker and special teams.

With NFL Draft picks like Caleb McSurdy and Jordan Tripp, along with greats like Brock Coyle, Josh Buss, and 2019 Buck Buchanan Award winner Dante Olson (not to mention the likes of Kroy Biermann and Tyrone Holmes, who played D-end at UM before switching to linebacker in the NFL).

Missoula’s Levi Janacaro, who earned preseason all-conference honors as the team’s leading returning tackler, and Anaconda’s Braxton Hill are poised to have big seasons in their senior year.

Carson Rostad from Hamilton and Ryan Tirrell of Missoula are juniors that will be looking for a breakout season, as is Cooper Barnum, who made the transition from safety in the offseason. Riley Wilson, a transfer from Hawaii, and Vincent Genatone are also names to watch at the position.

Special teams

Kicker Nico Ramos, who is back for an additional year after receiving a waiver from the NCAA in the offseason, and punter Travis Benham, who brings an average of nearly 40 yards per attempt with him as a transfer from San Jose State, are early leaders in this group.

Malik Flowers set an NCAA record for kickoff return TDs last season before graduating, but Bergen has earned several preseason All-America awards for his return ability.

It’s the coverage teams that really make an impact for the Griz, however, with UM being near the top of the nation in net punt average. Missoula’s Tyler Flink, an all-conference pick a year ago, and Trevin Gradney of Billings, an all-conference honoree from two years ago and preseason all-conference this season, will also be key to UM’s prowess as “Special Teams U.”