#14 Montana FCS Football 2016 Preview

Montana Grizzlies
Overall Rank: #14
#2 Big Sky
While Coach Bob Stitt is building depth in year two of his tenure at Montana, the Grizzlies lost a lot of talented seniors. That lack of experience could come back to haunt them. However, Montana has a lot of momentum after a very good 2015 campaign. With four losses by Halloween, it looked like Montana would miss the playoffs, but they managed to beat Idaho State, Eastern Washington and Montana State at the end of the year to squeeze into the playoffs with a 7-4 record. After slipping past South Dakota State, Montana ran into North Dakota State and, of course, that put an end to their playoff hopes. This may not be a dominating Montana team, especially early in the year, but this is a Grizzlies team that will get another shot at a playoff run.
2015 Record: 8-5, 6-2
2015 Postseason: FCS Playoffs
Coach: Bob Stitt (8-5 at Montana, 8-5 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Bob Stitt
Defensive Coordinator: Jason Semore
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: John Nguyen, RB, 855 yards
Passing: Brady Gustafson, QB, 1,984 yards
Receiving: Josh Horner, WR, 294 yards
Tackles: Caleb Kidder, DE, 82
Sacks: Ryan Johnson, DE, 5.0
Interceptions: JR Nelson, CB, 2
Other Key Returnees: RB Jeremy Calhoun, QB Chad Chalich, OL Devon Dietrich, S Yamen Sanders
Key Losses: WR Jamaal Jones, WR Ellis Henderson, WR Ben Roberts, OL John Schmaing, LB Kendrick Van Ackeren, LB Jeremiah Kose, DE Tyrone Holmes, LB Herbert Gamboa, CB Nate Harris, K Daniel Sullivan
Montana should have a strong defense again in 2016. Last season the unit ranked second in the Big Sky in pass defense, third in total defense and fourth in scoring defense. There are a lot of holes to fill, most notably on the line where Tyrone Holmes is gone after recording 18.0 sacks and 24.0 tackles-for-loss. Obviously he was a huge reason why the Grizzlies ranked fifth in the FCS with 3.31 sacks per game. Caleb Kidder is the superstar in waiting on the defensive line. Last season he recorded 82 tackles including 3.5 sacks and 10.0 tackles-for-loss. Ryan Johnson should step into a starting job after tallying 5.0 sacks. Even without Holmes, the line is in good shape and do not be surprised if their sack total does not drop too much. The biggest question is at linebacker where just about everybody is gone. In the secondary, safety Yamen Sanders and cornerback JR Nelson return to lead what should be a very strong unit.
The offense had to deal with an injury to quarterback Brady Gustafson last season. The 6-7 senior signal caller played in just seven games and threw for 1,984 yards and 12 touchdowns. Gustafson does need to be more consistent and consistency will be key for the offense across the board. Gustafson cannot afford to throw nine interceptions and complete 57.6 percent of his passes again this year if Montana wants to win the Big Sky. Gustafson will need to find some new targets too. Jamaal Jones is gone after catching 75 passes for 1,217 yards and 11 scores and Ben Roberts, Ellis Henderson and Chase Naccarato are gone too. That leaves Josh Horner, who caught 22 passes for 294 yards, as the only returning receiver who caught more than ten passes last season. With a healthy Gustafson, former quarterback Makena Simis will move to wide receiver to help ease the loss of the team’s top four receivers.
The Bottom Line:
If the passing game struggles, Montana will have to rely more heavily on running backs John Nguyen and Jeremy Calhoun. Nguyen rushed for 855 yards and three touchdowns and Calhoun totaled 291 yards and nine touchdowns. Nguyen is a good back who can do a lot more than he did most of last season and Calhoun is always good for picking up the tough yards. Montana should not end up in a situation like last year where they have to win a lot of games at the end of the year to make the playoffs. The early schedule is manageable and late October trips to Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington could decide the Big Sky title.
Projected Postseason: FCS Playoffs
2015 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 141.9 (73rd in nation, 9th in conference)
Passing Offense: 280.4 (13, 4)
Total Offense: 422.3 (28, 6)
Scoring Offense: 29.3 (42, 8)
Rushing Defense: 189.7 (79, 6)
Pass Defense: 190.3 (29, 2)
Total Defense: 380.0 (57, 3)
Scoring Defense: 24.6 (52, 4)
Turnover Margin: 0.00 (57, 3)
Sacks: 3.31 (5, 1)
Sacks Allowed: 2.46 (87, 12)
Madness 2016 Recruit Rankings:
#78 Ashton Torres
#125 Dylan Eickmeyer
#187 Thayne Jackson