Before Montana Tech’s spring football practices started, head coach Chuck Morrell sat down to answer a few questions from the Montana Standard. Entering his eighth year as the Orediggers’ head coach, he’s 41-35 with two Frontier Conference titles.
MONTANA STANDARD: This program has come a long ways since you’ve been here. In some ways, I think, the expectation is now almost to reload, rather than rebuild. Is that how you’re approaching this season?
CHUCK MORRELL: In our league, in how competitive the Frontier Conference is, you better show up ready with some talent every year in order to be competitive. That’s our goal every year. We want to come out, we want to put the best product on the field and we want to be competitive.
I think our guys have grown to a certain level of expectation within the framework of the program and it’s that we’re going to win, it’s that we’re going to be competitive and it’s that we’re going to work to put ourselves in a position to challenge for the conference title.
Now that’s easier said than done and there’s a lot of work that goes into that. I look at our current, coming year schedule and there’s not a single game on there that I think is an automatic win for us. We’re going to have to play our best football every single week.
One thing we’ve worked really hard with our guys this spring is that every year is new. Whatever our identity has been last year or two years ago or three years ago, this is a new group. There’s a lot of carryover, but we’re going to establish a new identity. That’s really our big focus coming through the spring — establishing our identity as a team, establishing our identity as an offense and establishing our identity as a defense.
Obviously quarterback is going to be a big story for you during training camp. What’s it going to be like to have a true quarterback competition for the first time in a couple years?
As a coach there’s a degree of comfortability when you have a guy that’s locked in and he’s the defined starter and you have the known quantities there. I think it’s exciting for our young guys to come in and compete. We strongly believe that they have the talent to be starters in this league.
It’s gonna be fun. I think, you know, Quinn [McQueary] has obviously for the last several years here, he’s been the guy. There hasn’t been a lot of competition. Not that Quinn needed competition, he’s a very self-driven individual player.
But, it’s going to be fun for us to go out this spring and take some younger guys and teach them the game and let them go out there and compete. What we really want to find out is how they respond in adverse situations. There’s such good defenses in this league that they’re going to be under fire a ton.
With Quinn being so mobile and some of those plays that you ran for him — out of the gun, the RPO’s, that kind of stuff — are you expecting your offense to change a little bit?
Our offensive identity, it’s gonna flow and mold into a different direction any time you put a new quarterback back there. You know, one thing our coaching staff does really well is adapting.
It’s not that we always get a chance to recruit players to our scheme. We’ve got to adapt our scheme to the best talent that we’re able to recruit. I think this year is going to be no different. I think the strengths of some of our guys, we’re going to have to bend and move our scheme in a little bit different direction.
At the same time our identity and being diverse offensively, a lot of different personnel groups, being able to feature different running backs, being able to work some of the perimeter and the tempo game, I think that stuff is all gonna stay intact for us.
Speaking to some of those themes, how important is it going to be to have guys like (running back) Jed Fike and (wide receiver) Dion Williams back for you?
I think they’re a great safety net for a new quarterback. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is hand the ball off or get a quick pass out to one of the more dynamic wide receivers in the league.
I think those guys that have the experience and have produced at a high level in our league are willing to take on more of a role and responsibility to elevate their game to protect our young quarterbacks. I think they’ll certainly do that.
Receiver is another one of those spots where you lost a little bit of talent, but I know there’s some excitement around some of the younger guys. Who might we see emerge?
We’ve worked really hard here on receiver depth. That goes back a long time and about five or six years ago we ran into an issue where we got to the end of the season and only had a couple healthy guys left. Since then I’ve really challenged our coaching staff to recruit solid depth so we have seven or eight solid options to put on the field.
Obviously it starts with Dion, we’re excited about him and we’re going to find a million different ways to get him the football. There’s some young guys that are in there, guys that redshirted. Alec Steel is a guy, he was a freshman for us a year ago and played. He’s gonna become a big part of our offense.
Trevor Hoffman and Cole McCloud are two guys that redshirted and have the frame, speed and strength to be guys that are going to impact us rather quickly. At the end of the day, for us, the best man plays, so I’ll never put it beyond on a young guy coming in and being able to compete and impact us.
We’re really focused on making sure our depth is there because, and I say this often, everyone in our league has good No. 1’s, everybody’s got great starters. What separates teams in our league is depth. That’s something we’ve really got to focus on coming up this spring.
Speaking of depth and a little recruiting, I wanted to talk about your recruiting class in a broad sense. Twenty-five or so from Montana, 10 from Washington, I know there’s a couple Californians and even a kid from Texas. How do you find and scout these guys?
When it comes to recruiting, and this isn’t special to Montana Tech, it’s any good college football staff in America, you have to do a good job of identifying your needs. Then you go out and it’s relentless effort, that’s what it boils down to.
You have to be on the recruiting trail 365 days a year, engaged in social media and engaged in evaluations of players. One thing that I think has really helped us in recruiting is that we’ve always been able to recruit a strong core of young players. That’s where incoming players are going to identify with the youngest players on your team.
I think our young players on our team have been some of our best recruiters, not only the coaches, but the players. Our peer-to-peer recruiting has been excellent for us. Our coaching staff goes over the top, they work super hard at it. I tell them ‘obviously our backbone of our team is going to come from Montana’ and that’s going to be true as long as I’m the head coach here.
We can find players anywhere. We’ve got players from Alaska, California, there’s guys that can impact us and they can come from anywhere as long as they fit into our culture. I think that’s where our coaching staff has done a real great job, is finding players that fit our culture.
I know character is real important when it comes to the guys on your team. What’s your general philosophy when it comes to recruiting?
In terms of the mindset of the guys on the team, we ask our guys every year to be involved in a lot of community service projects. I want us to have an understanding and an attitude that service to those around us matters.
I think we have a unique opportunity to impact this community, especially a lot of the youth in this community and giving them examples of what it takes to be a college athlete, what it takes to go to college, period. When we look at our incoming guys, those are traits that we also look for.
I want guys that are going to be team orientated, that are going to care about the people around them more than they care about their individual stats and that are going to be invested in each other. I strongly believe our chemistry and our long-term team chemistry is going to be what allows you to go to the national playoffs.
Sticking with the recruiting theme, you went real heavy on the offensive and defensive lines. Ten or so offensive, five or so defensive. How are you feeling about what you have in the trenches?
I thought our staff has done a good job with our offensive line recruiting. That’s been a place that was a big target for us this year. It’s nice for us right now, we’ve had a good mix in our classes. We do have some really good players coming back that have extensive starting experience, but also we’re getting to the point where a lot of those guys that have played for us a lot are getting to be juniors and seniors.
The development time that it takes, especially at the offensive line, where we’ve got to be invested in that. I think it’s absolutely the key to winning conference championships. Your offensive line has to be legit and our offensive line coach, Coach [Ryan] McFadden has done a great job with those guys. We’ve really focused up on that because we are going to graduate some guys here in the next couple years and we’ll need some guys to step in and fill some spots on that.
With the defensive line, we play a high volume of guys. I always tell our guys that if you’re in the top seven or eight defensive lineman, you’re essentially a starter, you’re going to play about an equal amount of snaps. With the advent of up-tempo offense, we’ve got to put fresh defensive linemen on the field all the time. It’s a key spot for us to have some depth on the defensive line.
How are you feeling about those guys and what you have returning in the secondary and the linebackers?
I’m really excited about what we have coming back at safety. We’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of starts, a lot of playing time at safety. Justin May played for us as a redshirt freshman, was a year-long starter and I thought played outstanding football all year long.
Tucker Rauthe has been on the field a lot for us, Clay Dean, Zack Morris. The safety is certainly a spot where we’ve got some talent, some experience at.
At linebacker we’ve got Connor Wines, who was the leading sacker in the conference, Nic Amestoy, Carter Myers are two proven starters for us. Linebacker wise, we feel really strongly with our frontline guys and the same way going all the way down to our front.
We’ve got experience all the way through, top to bottom on our defense.
I know it’s still way, way early, but are you getting the leadership you’ve wanted so far during the offseason?
We spend a lot of time on it and actually that’s one of the biggest components in terms of evaluation of leadership when we go through the workouts. In terms of our training and our winter workout progression the mental toughness aspect, to me, I can identify that when we’re running and we’re pushing and we’re doing extra reps.
We’re really looking for those guys that have the mental strength because if guys show us through workouts that they’re mentally tough, then I know when we get into a critical situation, at the end of a fourth quarter of a Frontier Conference game, I know that I can have those guys on the field.
We have our group that’s called our Elite Ops group and these are they guys that go above and beyond. Elite Ops, for us, that group of kids that have earned that right, that have done things. It’s not just lifting and it’s not just running, training, it’s the guys that do the most community service, the guys that are doing excellent in the classroom. We’re looking for those well-rounded guys to really hold up on a pedestal and to try and drive the rest of the guys on the team towards that.
Speaking off the offseason — which, I guess, maybe there really isn’t one for you — but how have you spent the last couple months?
Obviously recruiting takes up a lot of our time. We’re recruiting year around, but obviously December, January and the early part of February we’re really invested in getting a lot of guys on campus, so that’s a busy time for us.
Professional development is also very important and I want to make sure our coaching staff gets out and interacts with other coaching staffs, other defensive staffs, other offensive staffs to create and generate ideas and also share what we do. I think we do some stuff really well and it’s an opportunity for us to get out there and steal some X’s and O’s from some other guys.
That’s what spring is about. We’ve got an opportunity to implement and try some new things out and then move our scheme towards our strengths. It’s a great opportunity for us and we actually spend a lot of time doing that during the winter months.
I’ve always been curious, who has influenced you the most as a coach?
There’s actually really three people. My father coached high school football for nearly 40 years and I was able to grow up in a small town and play for my dad, be on the sideline since I was 5 years old has a lot to do with why I’m coaching today.
Coach Bob Young, is an NAIA hall of famer, was my college football coach and actually I got an opportunity to both play and then work for him early in my coaching career. There isn’t a finer man on the face of the planet. He’s incredible, well rounded and well respected. I was able to learn a lot about how to operate a program from him.
In terms of some defensive stuff and our defensive basis, a lot of our advent of moving into the 3-4 came from Mike Breske, who in the mid-2000s was the defensive coordinator at the University of Wyoming. He’s been with the Griz and is now the defensive coordinator at the University of Idaho and he was certainly a great teacher to myself early on in the stages of moving into a 3-4 defense here.
Switching gears a little bit, what’s your take on the Frontier Conference next season and your schedule?
I think our schedule is extremely difficult, but I don’t think we’re alone in thinking our schedule is difficult. I think every head coach in the Frontier is going to look at their schedule and think they have a challenging road ahead.
We’re going to have to play well on the road. We have trips to Ashland to play Southern Oregon, La Grande to play Eastern Oregon. We’ve got to go to Caldwell to play College of Idaho in our first game of the season. We play at Rocky Mountain the last game of the season.
So, certainly we’re going to have to go and perform well on the road. I think you look at the context of me saying, ‘okay, who’s going to be the team next year,’ you see Southern Oregon has been up there, Rocky has certainly improved considerably, Western is consistent, Carroll, I just don’t want to leave anybody out. Eastern Oregon was in the national semifinals two years ago. College of Idaho, we went down there and they got after us this last year.
I think it’s very, very challenging. The difference between the team that’s going to be 9-1 or 8-2 and win the conference and the team that’s 2-8, the differences are incredibly small in our league. You can be a really good team, and that’s what we talk about with our guys in terms of ‘we can be better, but does that mean you’re good?” You can improve and get better, but everyone else is improving and getting better.
There’s a difference between that and winning football games. I think it’s the hardest thing in the world to predict. You know, though, again, obviously Southern has been doing a good job. It’s been either us or them at the top of the conference for the past three or four years, but there’s several teams that have a shot to win the conference title next year.
You’re playing Western down in Dillon for the second year in a row. I know that’s just a quirk of the schedule, but is it a little frustrating?
No, not really, that’s just life in our conference. I think when you have eight teams in the conference and you try to rotate the schedule a little bit, sometimes you’re in a position where you have to go on the road twice in a row. People had to do that for us too. We’ve had teams that have had to come to our place twice in a row when the schedule has changed.
It certainly is what it is. One thing I tell our coaching staff and our players is that we can’t get hung up on the schedule. Anytime, anyplace, it’s the next game on the schedule, we have to go here, we have to play this game and we better be ready to play at the top of our capabilities.
I always think of it as road games and travel, well, when you look at the context of a team like Southern Oregon, every other week they’re going on a really long trip. So, I don’t wanna sit here and say much. We certainly have travel issues coming down the pipe here, but we’re not the only ones.
I also saw that you guys will be playing one under the lights, though that was added later. Did you just ask to see if you could get one of those to be a night game, or what was that conversation like?
We just thought there was an incredible vibe that came out of the Copper game last year when we hosted Carroll under the lights. The energy in the building, under the lights was just fantastic and really an opportunity to highlight the Frontier Conference.
Obviously being able to do that again, for our first game of the season, it’ll be a blast. The way things have progressed here over the last couple years as far as the tailgate and the energy and the excitement surrounding our season, it just adds a little more pizazz to being able to play that as a night game. I know that our kids and our fans and our alumni will be excited about it. I also know our opponent, Eastern Oregon, does a great job and travel really well on the road and they’ll be excited to play in that type of atmosphere as well.
With the way your team has been running, I’m sure there’s been some interest by other programs. How have you been able to keep this staff together?
The key to our success right now is that we’ve kept our staff intact here for several years in a row. I think if you ask any head coach that’s been successful, a lot of it has to do with staff consistency. I certainly want the guys that work for me, I’m always open with them and the other opportunities they might get as they move on or build their career. At the same standpoint I think there’s a family atmosphere here, that the community has embraced them, that this program and this intuition cares about what they’re doing.
I think that’s as big as anything, is that they feel like this is their home. I’ve been very fortunate to keep those guys intact and I can’t say enough about our assistant coaches here. They do an incredible job and they prepare as well as anyone I’ve ever been around.