MISSOULA — The quarterback battle that’s been brewing in the Garden City since spring ball appears to nearing the finish line.
In Monday's first scrimmage of Montana’s preseason camp, senior quarterback Reese Phillips started with the ones and had a productive day with his arm, completing 17-of-25 passes for 188 yards with two touchdowns, an interception and a fumble. Phillips made some plays with his feet as well, ending the day with 11 net yards rushing.
"I feel good,” Phillips said. “I thought it was pretty good. It's probably a pretty typical first scrimmage. Personally, I think it was better than most first scrimmages in fall are.”
Phillips' first touchdown came on his third drive. On second-and-5 from the 37-yard line, senior wide receiver Makena Simis found himself wide open in the middle of the field and Phillips threaded the ball to him. Simis was wide open and wasn’t touched as he darted to the end zone.
The second touchdown came late in the scrimmage. On fourth-and-1 at the 7-yard line, Phillips aired out a fade to redshirt freshman Samuel Akem, who was in the back-left corner of the end zone. Leaping over sophomore safety Gavin Crow, Akem jumped up to grab the ball for the touchdown, knocking over the pylon in the process.
The other two quarterbacks vying for the job had productive days as well.
Junior quarterback Caleb Hill was 8-of-13 for 74 yards with one touchdown, while redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen was 8-of-15 for 68 yards. Neither of the two had reps with the first-team offense.
"Caleb is very athletic,” Phillips said. “He is new so the grasp of the offense, it takes a little while and you can tell that he's still figuring it out and that's part of this offense, we go fast and stuff flies, but what saves him is he's so athletic. He makes plays with his feet and if he does mess up, he can usually make a play out of it.
“Gresch, for being a redshirt freshman, I've never seen a redshirt freshman handle stuff as well as he does. It's very encouraging. As a fan of this team going forward in the future, he's gonna be really good here.”
The blame on Phillips’ turnovers could be shared all around.
Phillips’ interception came on his second drive in the red zone. Third-and-goal at the 4-yard line, Phillips stepped back in the pocket and targeted junior running back Alijah Lee. The ball bounced off Lee’s hands and into the hands of redshirt freshman cornerback Lewis Cowans, who ran 96 yards for the lone defensive score of the day.
“The first one that Reese threw a pick on is a new play and we'll probably toss it out,” head coach Bob Stitt said. “That one's on me. I don't like it and the play had Reese's eyes in the wrong place and it wasn't fair.”
Other scrimmage notes:
RUNNING BACKS: Junior running back Jeremy Calhoun only saw action on the opening series. He started off the scrimmage with two carries for 3 yards apiece. Once Calhoun took to the sideline, several running backs were involved in the mix, including Lee, redshirt freshman Rey Green, and sophomore Cody McCombs, among others. Freshman running back Terron Moses led in yardage on the ground game with 23 yards on three carries. Lee was right behind with 22 yards on four carries and Green chipped in 20 yards on seven carries.
After the scrimmage, Stitt said he’s still not sure who will suit up behind Calhoun in the backfield.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Like Jeremy Calhoun, Griz wide receiver standouts in junior Keenan Curran and redshirt-sophomore Jerry Louie-McGee only lined up on just a couple series.
Curran had two receptions for 12 yards and Louie-McGee had one reception for 8 yards.
“We rested a couple guys, Keenan and Jerry, we don't need to see those guys as much,” Stitt said. “We know what they can do. We gotta find out what some of these younger guys can do.”
Sophomore Kobey Eaton and senior Josh Horner led the way in receiving yards with 55 and 53 yards apiece, respectively, on four receptions. Redshirt freshman Samori Toure was really involved in the offensive production too, with 39 yards on five receptions.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Stitt said he was impressed with the protection the offensive line gave the quarterbacks, compared to how first scrimmages have gone in years past. Phillips was touch-sacked thrice and Jensen was touch-sacked once. The offensive line opened up some running lanes for Phillips.
The battle at right tackle isn’t over, as both senior Mike Ralston and redshirt freshman Thayne Jackson received reps with the first team.
“The jury is still out there,” Stitt said in regard to who the starter will be at right tackle. “We keep playing these guys and the best guy is gonna be in there. … They’re getting challenged every single day and we’re not set in stone by any means on the offensive line.”
DEFENSIVE LINE: Things seemed to be the status quo on the defensive line. Senior defensive end Tucker Schye had an impressive first scrimmage with four total tackles with two sacks for a loss of 12 yards. And to end it, senior nose tackle Brandt Davidson blocked a PAT attempt.
LINEBACKERS: Sophomore Vika Fa’atulese got plenty of action with the first-team defense and had a team-high eight tackles. He’s positioning himself as the guy to start at middle linebacker after Week One.
Junior Josh Buss had a productive day as well, ending with five tackles, one tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
As far as the younger linebackers, freshman Mike Matthews forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Andrew Harris.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Sophomore safety Josh Sandry is going to be exciting to watch this season. With five tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup, Sandry stood out among the the safeties. He almost came away with an interception as well.
Sandry’s partner in senior Justin Strong didn’t have as stand-out of a scrimmage, but he did have two tackles.
The biggest play of the day came at cornerback when Cowans picked off Phillips for a pick-six. Redshirt-senior Ryan McKinley had three tackles at his spot and Cowans started on the other side because junior Markell Sanders didn’t suit up.
KICKERS/PUNTERS: Junior punter Eric Williams has completely locked up the punting game and sophomore Brandon Purdy was perfect on his two PAT attempts. Sophomore Tim Semenza made a 22-yard field goal and hit one of his PATs. His last PAT attempt was blocked by Davidson.
PENALTIES: There were four penalties in the scrimmage, two on offense and two on defense. Strong and redshirt freshman cornerback Josh Egbo were flagged for pass interference, Touri false started on third-and-9 and Brandon Scott false started on third-and-5.