In the FCS Huddle: Griz working to get focus back on field

New Montana football coach Mick Delaney isn't planning to open training camp next month with a special speech next about the Grizzlies' need to keep working toward overcoming a messy offseason.

"In all honestly, they'll probably tell me," he said. "It's amazing. Young men are more resilient than coaches are. They've already taken that step."

The dark cloud over the UM program this offseason hasn't lifted completely - there may even be more bad news on the horizon - but the Grizzlies have been trying to restore order after a series of player arrests, some involving alleged sexual assaults, led to the March firings of head coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O'Day.

The highly respected Delaney, a former Montana assistant coach whom the university brought out of a brief retirement to guide the Grizzlies, isn't hiding from all the bad news.

Besides, he also knows there's probably good news sitting out there for his team.

Football season is fast approaching, and the Grizzlies expect to get back to their winning ways, which is reflected in their being selected third in the Big Sky Conference preseason head coaches and media polls on Tuesday at their Summer Kickoff meetings.

Montana shared Big Sky title with arch-rival Montana State. The Bobcats earned the preseason favorite's role, having already gained the most preseason all- conference selections - six - on Sunday. Eastern Washington was picked second in both polls.

Montana went on to reach the FCS national semifinals in an 11-3 season last year, but the many offseason issues still linger, and figure to even after the Grizzlies kick off their season on Sept. 1 against South Dakota. The NCAA and the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education are investigating Montana and how the university responded to the alleged sexual assaults.

"It's there every day, almost no matter where you're at or what you're doing that is associated with Montana football or even the community of Missoula or the University of Montana, whether it is football or not," Delaney said. "It is a question that is out there every day and you answer honestly and as factually as you can."

The Montana players are providing the kind solutions that will move their season forward. Jarred from all the hits this offseason, the upperclassmen have been steadfast in getting the program back on track. They have publicly made the team accountable to a higher level of conduct, similar to the higher standard set on the field by past Grizzlies' teams.

"I would say, in all honesty, the first month was pretty rough for us, just kind of figuring out how as a team, as one unit, being a family, how we were going to handle it," said tight end Greg Hardy, an All-America candidate. "As a senior, and along with a lot of other guys, we just called a team meeting, got together (and said), 'Hey, fellas, we all know it kind of feels like us against everyone. Instead of us, say, breaking up, let's come together.'

"There's going to be some stuff coming out I'm sure still that could shake the team. But I feel pretty confident in our abilities as a team to stay together, pull together and play harder for each other maybe than you've ever seen this team play."

This season, Montana's offense should be outstanding again. The Grizzlies return a strong line led by tackle Danny Kistler - all 6-foot-8, 315 pounds of him - to set up a running game that features quarterback Jordan Johnson, Peter Nguyen, Jordan Canada and Dan Moore. Those four combined for 2,351 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground last season.

Jordan was accused of sexual assault but not charged this offseason,

The defense lost nine starters, but Delaney foresees a group of players who have performed on special teams or been redshirted to mature into key roles. Plus the Grizzlies get back linebacker Jordan Tripp, who missed much of last season with a shoulder injury, to join John Kanongata'a on one of the nation's best linebackers units.

Sure, there will be some growing pains. But Montana faced some last season as well before it shifted into higher gear and rolled through a nine-game winning streak in October, November and early December, ultimately losing to Sam Houston State in the national semifinals.

"I'd say the expectations in Missoula, Montana, and with the Griz," Hardy said, "is to win lots of games, be Big Sky champs and be a national championship contender. Will that happen? I don't know. I just know we have a group of a hundred guys who are going to work very hard, gonna do what Coach Delany wants us to."

"I think the reason we're able to move on," Delaney said, "is tradition, is the type of young men that we have at the University of Montana, the student- athletes that are there. I think that is what is probably the most rewarding thing to us as coaches - is to see these young men put the distractions aside.

"Our kids are positive young men. They want to do the right thing the right way. They're working for it every single minute of every day, I think. I'm just so encouraged by that and so are the coaches."

As for Montana's chief rival, Montana State, it came as no surprise that the Bobcats were selected first in both Big Sky preseason polls. The Bobcats have earned a share of the last two titles with a 7-1 conference record in each season.

"I'm complimented by it," Montana State coach Rob Ash said. "I'm excited that we've gotten some respect from the rest of the teams in the league, but it doesn't mean anything about how the season is going to turn out. Preseason polls are always more of a past performance than future performance in my opinion."

The two polls were comparable with the exception of North Dakota, which was picked sixth in the media poll but only 10th in the coaches poll.


Head Coaches

1. Montana State (7 first-place votes), 136 points

2. Eastern Washington (4), 131

3. Montana (1), 126

4. Portland State, 90

5. Cal Poly, 86

6. Weber State, 81

7. Northern Arizona, 75

8. Southern Utah (1), 74

9. Sacramento State, 71

10. North Dakota, 68

11. Idaho State, 31

12. UC Davis, 30

13. Northern Colorado, 14


1. Montana State (30), 502

2. Eastern Washington (3), 453

3. Montana (5), 442

4. Portland State, 334

5. Cal Poly (1), 323

6. North Dakota, 295

7. Weber State (1), 284

8. Southern Utah, 258

9. Northern Arizona, 242

10. Sacramento State, 191

11. UC Davis, 135

12. Idaho State, 115

13. Northern Colorado, 63


Offensive MVP - Brad Sorensen, Sr., QB, Southern Utah

Defensive MVP - Jody Owens, Sr., LB, Montana State


QB - Brad Sorensen, Sr., Southern Utah

RB - Zach Bauman, Jr., Northern Arizona

RB - Cody Kirk, Jr., Montana State

FB - Tevia Tolutau, So., Weber State

OL - Zach Brackus, Sr., Southern Utah

OL - Tytan Timoteo, Sr., Weber State

C - Ray Wilburn, Sr., UC Davis

OL - Danny Kistler, Jr., Montana

OL - Will Post, Sr., Eastern Washington

TE - Greg Hardy, Sr., Montana

WR - Nicholas Edwards, Sr., Eastern Washington

WR - Rodrick Rumble, Sr. Idaho State

WR - Greg Hardin, Sr., North Dakota

WR - Brandon Kaufman, Jr., Eastern Washington


DE - Brad Daly, Jr., Montana State

DE - Bobby Erskine, Sr., UC Davis

DT - Zach Minter, Sr., Montana State

DT - Cody Larsen, Sr., Southern Utah

LB - Jody Owens, Sr., Montana State

LB - Ian Sluss, Sr., Portland State

LB - Kennith Jackson, Sr., Cal Poly

LB - Clarence Bumpas, Jr., Northern Colorado

LB - Todd Davis, Jr., Sacramento State

CB - T.J. Lee III, Jr., Eastern Washington

CB - Darius Jones, Sr., Montana State

S - Kevyn Lewis, Sr., UC Davis

S - Joel Fuller, Sr., Montana State

Special Teams

PK - Zach Brown, Sr., Portland State

P - Colton Schmidt, Sr., UC Davis

Return - Dominic Gunn, Sr., Northern Colorado

ST - Nevin Lewis, Sr., Portland State