Western football players report Friday for training camp

Montana Western QB Tyler Hulse breaks free for a big run during the Bulldogs Spring Game in April. M.P. Regan photo

 

New University of Montana Western Head Football Coach B.J. Robertson takes the first big step toward trying to sustain the forward momentum the program generated in previous years when he opens the team’s Fall Training Camp on Friday.

“The biggest thing to accomplish is getting everybody on the same page, so the players and I know what to expect from one another,” said Robertson, who was hired in May by Athletic Director Ryan Nourse, who had earlier in the spring given up football head coaching job to take the vacant athletic director’s position.

“Change is always hard, but if we all go in with a team-first mentality, we’ll be fine. And it’s not like Ryan Nourse left the school. The players are still able to talk to him, which helps a lot.”

Robertson says he was impressed with the character of Western’s players even before he took the job as their head coach. 

As a recruitment coordinator for Frontier Conference rival Rocky Mountain College in Billings, he tried signing a number of the current Western players for the Battlin’ Bears. And as coach of Rocky’s special teams and defensive backs, he saw a young Western team KO Rocky in Dillon last season.

“I thought the Western guys played their tails off in that game. They played four quarters hard,” recalled Robertson, who also served as defensive backs and strength and conditioning coach during his six years at Rocky.  

“If we can get our guys to play that way ten games a year, we could really have a good season. It’s a fine, young group of guys with a lot of enthusiasm and energy, and a good up-and-coming young team,” said Robertson, a 1998 Western graduate who played for the Bulldogs as a running back under Head Coach Bob Beers.

Robertson expects on Friday to see about 120 players—50 newcomers and 70 returnees, any one of whom could be a starter when the Bulldogs take the field for their Sept. 7 season opener in Dillon against Southern Oregon.

“We obviously have some guys who did great jobs last year, guys we are expecting great things out of this year. But every season, players have to come in and earn their spots” said Robertson, who starred for Sheridan during his high school playing days.

“That’s the great thing about football: you gotta come in and compete and see where you’re at.”

A number of key players returning from last year’s young 4-6 team, which gave more playing time to freshmen and sophomores than juniors and seniors, look to have an inside track for starting spots. 

The offense returns, among others, playmaking wide receiver Rashad Peniston, All-Conference tight end A.J. Smith, Dylan Kramer, who lead the team in rushing last season as a freshman, and offensive linemen Nick Brown and Will Thacker, who played with the discipline and effectiveness of a senior in his freshman campaign last season.

Robertson figures the defense will feature a strong spine if it sees a return to last season’s form from safety Jesse McCloud, defensive tackle Phil Selin and linebackers Kasey Griffith and A.J. Wilson, who’s recovered from an unlikely offseason eye injury he suffered after getting hit with a fishing lure.

Wilson’s fellow linebacker Matt Detwiler wasn’t so lucky, as his knee injury has forced him to retire from playing and take a position on the coaching staff.

While his knee injury hasn’t forced him to give up playing, Matt Lickfold, a converted wide receiver who emerged as a leading candidate for the starting quarterback spot this season, will be forced to sit out the 2013 season due to completely tearing his ACL during the Bulldogs’ intrasquad Spring Game in April, according to Robertson.

But Robertson feels another converted wide receiver, Tyler Hulse, who took the lion’s share of snaps at QB for the Spring Game while demonstrating an impressive arm to go along with his potent running ability, is up to the job--if he can hold off competition from some newcomers.

“Hopefully, we’ve been bringing in better and better guys to make it harder on our veteran players, and our veterans are developing and doing a better and better job to make it harder on our younger guys,” said Robertson, who plans to employ an aggressive 3-4 defense guided by defensive coordinator Rob Goode and pro-style offense under the direction of offensive coordinator Sean McKinney.

Fall Camp figures to start slowly, according to Robertson, who will also serve as the Bulldogs special teams coordinator.

“The first couple days will be paper work, meet and greet, introducing new coaches and new teammates, introducing freshmen players to older players, doing a little team building, S&C testing—things like that,” said Robertson, who engaged players in various activities over the summer, including a hike up Trapper Peak in the Bitterroot Mountains with his 13 seniors on the squad.

“The first actual practice will be on Sunday,” said Robertson, who will run two-a-day practice sessions until the team’s first scrimmage.

The Bulldogs will hold that first scrimmage on Friday, Aug. 23, starting at 6:30 p.m. at Vigilante Field, which will also host the second scrimmage at the same time a week later.

The regular season begins Sept. 7 with a visit from last season’s nemesis, Southern Oregon, who represented the Frontier Conference in the postseason NAIA playoffs, along with Montana Tech, who’ll host Western in Butte two weeks later. 

“Our guys should be really fired up coming in Friday, knowing that two of their first three games are against teams that made the playoffs last season,” said Robertson.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of this program right now.”