On paper, it looked like any other practice. But as soon as the Montana Grizzlies set foot on the turf inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, it was evident the anticipation was at a boiling point.
The Griz took to the field for the first official practice of the year on Tuesday on the third day of fall camp with a spark of excitement in the air for the new season.
Practice one ran a little over two hours and thirty minutes, as head coach Bob Stitt‘s 2017 Griz came out of the lockers noticeably bigger and bulkier, displaying the benefits of strength coach Matt Nicholson‘s summer lifting program.
“This day couldn’t have got here fast enough,” said Stitt. “We’ve put in so much work in the offseason, and after seeing these guys out here today, we’re a better football team than we were when we walked off the field in Butte.”
Sophomore Josh Sandry returned to the practice field after spending last week back in his native Bigfork, soaking up the sun on Flathead Lake.
Before that, he was in the gym with Nicholson and his Grizzly teammates during player-run practices, and his development over the summer was obvious.
Sandry was the star of Tuesday’s practice, picking up where he left off at the spring game with a leaping interception, which he then returned 50 yards for a touchdown.
“The quarterback got the safety moved, and he just made a heck of a play on the ball, and that’s what we want to see,” said Stitt, giving a nod to Sandry’s athleticism.
Sandry had another leaping pass breakup later in practice as well, completing an eye-popping first day for the sophomore who started three games last season as a freshman.
Also making plays for the defense was junior cornerback Markell Sanders, who made a dynamic leaping pass breakup along the sideline, gathering cheers from his teammates.
“We put in a lot of work this summer, so to get out here with the guys and get the team back together felt awesome,” said Sandry.
“We’re really excited, we’ve got a lot of dudes that can play defense. We’ve got good depth I think, so to get out and play, I think we’re going to have a great season.”
The offense wasn’t without its highlights either.
All three returning quarterbacks received virtually equal reps as Stitt installed the offense on day one.
FUN AND GAMES: In the offseason, the Grizzlies acquired a new, motorized tackling dummy intended to help players footwork while tracking across the field for a tackle.
Fun and games were the unintended benefits of the new “T-1000” as defensive coordinator Jason Semore refers to the M.V.P. – Mobile Virtual Player.
In the first competition of the day, the coaches pitted the MVP against offensive lineman Robert Luke in an all-out 40-yard dash. The rest of the team placed their bets on the outcome of the race, with those who sided with the loser having to do extra calisthenics. Luke won the race by a furlong.
The other competition of the day saw 155-pound kicker Tim Semenza make a goal-line stand against the MVP, making a flying, flipping, tackle to keep the robot out of the end zone to the delight of his teammates, who surrounded him with cheer.
BULKED UP: The 2017 Griz weighed in for the first time this fall on Monday, and the offseason work has paid off with the team, coming in an average five pounds heavier than it was in 2016.
There were some big individual gains on the roster though, with one of the most impressive weights coming from senior receiver Makena Simis who checked in at 235 pounds on Monday, a full 20 pounds heavier than last year.
Preseason All-Big Sky linebacker Josh Buss also checked in looking big, adding 16 more pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame to come in at 220 pounds on the year.
Offensive lineman Conlan Beaver checked in 17 pounds heavier this season at 293, impressive considering his coaches say he has the metabolism of a hummingbird. Beaver said he consumed over 10,000 calories per day this summer to hit his target weight, and it appears to have paid off.
The heaviest guy on the team award goes to offensive lineman Angel Villanueva, who checked in at 324 to start his sophomore year. Not far behind him is defensive tackle David Shaw, who tips the scales at 319.
All told, 18 different Grizzlies put on 10 pounds or more this offseason.
TEAM BONDING: Griz fall camp continues tonight at Stitt’s house where half of the team will assemble for a BBQ. The time won’t be spent just chatting over burgers, Stitt will talk with the players about the team’s character, accountability, resiliency, and other team culture topics.
The other half of the team will meet at Stitt’s house on Thursday for a similar team bonding evening.
CAMP SCHEDULE: Practice continues on Wednesday for the Griz, with players reporting to the field at 8:00 and team stretch getting underway at 8:30.