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Earlier this summer we caught up with Ben from Panthertalk.com and talked Georgia State football, then we ventured south and discussed the Georgia Southern Eagles. Ealier this week we got another dose of FCS football when we talked with Matt Elder of Buffalo Bills Draft. Now it's time to turn our attention to one of the most successful teams in the FCS and a brand new website that has just made it's debut. It's time to talk about the Montana Grizzlies with Grizfellas.com.


Your website is brand new. Tell us a little bit about it and what we can expect from you guys.

Well, the website just launched, and the group of us involved – the GrizFellas, I guess you could say -- are excited to get this baby off the ground. We’re all friends who were born and raised in Missoula, Montana, and have been Griz fans from the beginning. But we didn’t feel like there was a good headquarters for the kind of information and entertainment we wanted around the clock, seven days a week. Our goal is to be that source. We want to feature a wide range of material on the site, from player profiles to analysis to fun content worth checking out. We want to keep fans informed, entertained and connected. And give the Montana Grizzlies the high-caliber website they deserve.


Bobby Hauck went 80-17 during his time at Montana. Last year he was replaced by Robin Pflugrad and the Grizzlies posted a 7-4 record. What were your overall thoughts in Pflugrad's first year at the helm?

Considering the success Bobby Hauck brought to UM, replacing him would be a tough task for any incoming coach. This is particularly true for Pflugrad, who had never been a head coach at any level until his hire at UM. Hauck, while not liked by many Griz fans for his brash personality, “boring” offense, and failure to deliver a National Championship, still had an 80-17 record.  Enough said, in my opinion. The guy was a hell of a coach. The keys to the Cadillac are now in Pflugrad’s hands and he must show his style and hybrid spread offense will take this program to the promised land — Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas on Jan. 7.

2010 was a rough a year for Pflugrad and Griz Nation. For the first time in 18 years the Griz failed to make the FCS playoffs. And for the first time in 12 seasons, failed to win the Big Sky Conference. In other words, it was a long, cold winter in Montana. The fact that Big Sky rival Eastern Washington won the title didn’t help either. We’ll cut Pflu some slack though. He had to deal with replacing 16 starters from a 2009 team that went 14-1 and appeared in the National Championship and working with an empty recruiting board left by Hauck, who visited Las Vegas and never came home.

Losing senior QB Andrew Selle for the season in week 4 was a huge blow. Selle brought leadership and solid play, although he wasn’t the ideal QB for Pflugrad’s spread offense. With Selle out, Pflugrad turned to senior Oregon transfer, Justin Roper, who was inconsistent and never settled into the offense. Defensively, losing starting DE Josh Harris prior to season and starting DE Severin Campbell mid-season, led to a lack of consistent pass rushing. On the upside, the Griz ranked 16th in scoring offense (31.73 ppg), while the defense ranked 10th in total defense (289.82 ypg) in 2010.

Going into this season the major offensive question mark is at QB. The signal caller will be Jordan Johnson, a highly touted sophomore from Eugene, OR. Pflugrad raised a few eyebrows last season after burning Johnson’s redshirt by putting him into some very questionable situations. Consistent play from Johnson along with the sophomore claiming a leadership role will determine if this offense (and Pflu’s future at UM) thrives or dives in 2011.

The 2011 defense is loaded with talent and the strength of this team, led by senior All-American and Buck Buchanan Award Candidate, Trumaine Johnson. The defense returns seven starters. Replacing SS Erik Stoll and FS Jimmy Wilson is the top priority. Sr. Mike McCord will be pushed at the FS position by two incoming freshmen - Matt Hermanson from Sioux Falls, SD, and Connor Lebsock from Billings, MT. Hermanson and Lebsock are two recruits expected to contribute immediately on defense or special teams.  If the Griz get an improved, consistent pass rush, expect shutdown play in the back end led by Johnson and Jr. Linebacker Jordan Tripp.

 

Montana has put some guys in the pros lately. As a Falcons fan guys like Kroy Biermann and Shann Schillinger immediately come to mind. Who are some guys on this years team that you feel have NFL potential?

Without a doubt the player that displays the most NFL potential is Buck Buchanan award candidate Trumaine Johnson.  Standing at 6-2, Johnson is a unique CB prospect that could eventually be moved to safety in the NFL.  Johnson’s combination of height and speed (4.48 40 yd dash) has NFL scouts watching Trumaine’s every move.  Also, UM kicker Brody McKnight has serious NFL potential. The 6-0, 204 lb senior was taken 8th overall in the first round in the CFL draft. McKnight is a 2011 FCS All-American candidate; therefore he was eligible for the CFL draft. One of our best linemen coming into the season is 6-7 300 lbs Jon Opperud. He has the size for sure to make a NFL squad.

There’s a solid crop of Montana talent playing professionally right now, and that speaks to the growth of the program at UM.

 

Who are some under the radar guys who were on last years team that we should keep an eye on?

Offense- QB Jordan Johnson, 6-1, 202, So. - Johnson saw limited action in 2010 and will likely start week 1 vs. Tennessee. Johnson is quick and will rely on his speed to make many plays. He throws well on the run and Pflugrad implemented more roll out options for Johnson this spring. He didn’t seem confident throwing out of the pocket during spring camp, although not a necessity to succeed in Pflugrad’s system.  Depending on how the Tennessee game goes for Johnson, the QB spot will be his or Pflugrad may rotate all QBs in situations that fit each QB’s strengths.

Offense- WR Jabin Sambrano, 5-11, 175, Sr. - Though Sambrano was a starter last season he has yet to truly breakout. The senior from Temecula, CA was the deep homerun threat in Hauck’s offense but is now being asked to create that explosive play through tougher, shorter routes with Pflugrad. If he stays healthy, expect a big year.

Offense- Peter Nguyen Another player that was sort of under the radar was Peter Nguyen. Last year he had to play back up to Griz great and record holder Chase Reynolds. This is a going to be a make it or break it year for Nguyen because we have a very talented RB in Jordan Canada coming up this year that could push him.

Defense- LB Jordan Tripp, 6-2, 232, Jr.- Tripp should have a monster year assuming the DL is able to stay healthy.  No question the junior from Missoula is the leader, and most explosive player on the Griz D. He and T. Johnson have the most NFL potential on this defense.

 

Who are some newcomers that you think can have an immediate impact this year?

RB Jordan Canada, 5-9, 172, Fr., RS- Canada was one of those players, like Trumaine Johnson, that when you saw his highlights on signing day, you thought “how the hell did we land this kid?” Canada is in a tight competition with Jr. Peter Nguyen for the starting RB spot. Canada brings a shifty and very explosive style to the table. Nguyen is shifty but lacks overall speed and had some fumble issues in 2010. I expect Canada to win the starting role and never look back. Straight Loonie, homey.

Also be on the lookout for Freshman Safety, Connor Lebsock from Billings, MT. The 6-2, 198 lb. Lebsock will be expected to make an immediate impact on special teams. His father Ron, and two older brothers Matt, and Shawn also played for the Grizzlies.  


Out of all the games on the schedule what is the one game you want to win the most?

No doubt it’s the same as every year — at rival Montana State, 11/19. Any Griz fan who says otherwise is lying to themselves. The Brawl of the Wild is like a state holiday and determines bragging rights all year long. If the pieces fall in place, this game could decide the Conference Championship again. Montana State came to Missoula last year and snuck out a win and eliminated UM from the playoffs, sending 95% of the state into a 3-month state of depression.  Rob Ash has built a formidable program in Bozeman, led by the 2010 Big Sky Offensive MVP QB DeNarius McGhee. It’s imperative to show recruits, the state of Montana, and the rest of the conference that Montana isn’t fading – Montana doesn’t rebuild, it reloads.

Aside from the regular season finale in Bozeman, a rematch with the defending FCS champs is circled on a lot of calendars. Eastern Washington comes to Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Sept. 17 for the Big Sky Conference opener. The Red Turf Smurfs are coming off a high watermark year. But nobody outside of Cheney wants to see that red turf on television again. BTW, the NCAA has to regret letting this annoying aspect slip through the rulebook. It’s a gimmick that got old fast. Anytime we get to play a team that’s so high after last year’s season and we get to knock them back into their place, Griz fans will get up for it.


What do you see as the most important games on the schedule this year?

Unlike previous years, it won’t be one of those seasons the Griz can ease into. First off we have Tennessee. History has shown these first-game matchups with the big dogs can result in more than bruised egos. First and foremost, the Griz need to get out of this one without any major injuries. Yeah giving the rebuilding Volunteers a good game is the goal, but losing a starting player in a game that brings in more money than real perspective would really suck. Next we have a tough home game with a veteran Cal Poly team that has always given the Griz a run for their money, followed by Eastern Washington.


What is your gut feeling on the final record and what makes this season a success in your eyes?

Our collective gut still hurts from getting kicked in it last season. For so long, Griz fans have had the luxury of worrying more about how bad we’ll beat opponents than if we’ll beat them. That’s not the case anymore. Going 7-4 last season was one of the most brutal ends to a season in over a generation. That said, the players know this. The staff knows this. And Griz Nation sure as hell does. We have a good crew of seniors back this year, but they’ve got some tradition to reinvigorate. There are still some huge questions this year. We have some questions at QB this year and the spot still seems to be open for the taking. Overall, we’ll say this – to win the Big Sky, a team will have to beat the Griz, and the only two teams that did that last year and have high hopes this year – Montana St. and Eastern Washington – have the role that Montana has had all these years. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. And just like the 90s when the Montana Grizzlies were building the dynasty, this season they’re hungry underdogs. That sounds scary.

 

CFBZ Editor Note: A big thanks goes out to the guys at GrizFellas.com for answering our questions while getting their site ready for launch. It's ready now so make sure you give them a visit. You can also follow them on the Twitter Machine @Grizfellas.