This is the first in a series of positional previews for Carroll College, a string of stories that will run through the team's season opener Aug. 31 at Montana Tech.
Tanner Gustavsen introduced himself to Saints fans early last season, getting six plays in mid-September as Carroll toiled against MSU-Northern. The then-junior from Boise got his chances as the Saints had more valleys than peaks last season.
He showed flashes of his potential against the Lights a month and some change later, putting up 275 yards passing and 44 yards rushing and four total touchdowns. As last year’s opening day starter JT Linder dealt with injuries and inconsistent play -- due in part to some troubles along the offensive line -- in came Gustavsen.
Gustavsen gave an, at times, lethargic offense a jolt, but also contributed his fair share of turnovers. Even then, the turnovers came in desperate situations, a player looking to bring a Saints team back from a deficit.
Now, entering his senior season and slated to lead the Saints out of the gate, Gustavsen figures to take the next step as a playmaker. His speed and ability to create on the run -- though he says he favors passing from the pocket -- will keep defenses honest. In his seven appearances during the Saints' 4-6 2016 campaign, Gustaven passed for 667 yards, seven touchdowns and completed 60 percent of his passes while throwing two interceptions.
Should we expect to see Gustavsen running the option and out of the pocket on bootlegs? The senior wouldn’t say, but he pointed toward his high school career as evidence he’s more than capable of playing more on the run. Still, his preference is slingin’ from the pocket.
He’s showed confidence and leadership early on, too.
Continuity with younger receivers should not be a problem for this iteration of the Saints. Coach Mike Van Diest and offensive coordinator Nick Howlett have raved about the progression of Joe Farris and Paul Hart. As the Saints have proven threats in Connor Fohn and Troy Arntson, among others, a lot of the hype entering fall camp has come from Hart and Farris.
A group chat orchestrated it.
Gustavsen and receivers throughout the summer scheduled workouts. Whoever was available would meet and go through a variety of timing routes, working on the smaller details in the pass game. So far, according to coaches, the results are noticeable.
While Saints fans should expect to see plenty of Gustavsen, there appears to be a legitimate battle for the No. 2 QB spot this camp. Junior Matt McHugh of Loyola and Reece Hiibel of Afton, Wyoming, both have had moments in spring and fall scrimmages that suggest the younger quarterbacks are developing in the Saints’ system.
“They’ve been doing great,” Gustavsen said. “They’ve been throwing the ball really well. We got Reece and we got Matt. They’ve been doing really great. We are all good at our own things. We help each other a little bit.
“Matt’s a very smart guy. He knows his reads and how to make his reads and he’ll move around pretty fast. Reece has got a cannon, so he can move the ball around the field for sure.”
Howlett knows he has a stable of throwers and believes the trio complements each other well.
“Reece Hiibel has, more than anybody -- and somebody probably since Mac Roche and Dakota Stonehouse -- has an unbelievable arm. He has tremendous arm strength. Sometimes with guys like that, you have to reign them in a little bit because they want to show you how far they can throw it instead of just take the easy one. Reece’s thing is just patience and taking the easy one and truly taking what the defense gives you.”
“Matt McHugh is probably as cerebral of a football player as we have. He’s always on the same page in terms of where we want to go with the football, so it’s a great blend. It’s kind of the young and the old of it and kind of the progressions as they work through.”
It never hurts having four-time national champion and the NAIA’s leader for seasonal completion percentage on your sideline, either. Tyler Emmert is back coaching the Saints wide receivers, and serving as an invaluable resource to the signal callers.
“He knows what we’re trying to do. Shoot, I think this is like Tyler’s 35th year here, so we’re good,” Howlett joked. “We’re excited about that.”
On Aug. 31 against Montana Tech, everybody will see just how much the Saints have to offer.