BUTTE — Even as the Montana Tech football team was walking off Bob Green field for the last time of the 2017 season, the wheels were already turning in head coach Chuck Morrell’s head.
The Orediggers fell to Southern Oregon in their regular season finale and won’t make the playoffs this season. While it's starting earlier than Morrell and the rest of his coaching staff wanted it to, the monumental challenge of replacing eight senior starters has already begun.
“It’s time to get back on the recruiting trail and take a step back and evaluate the season,” Morrell said. “As you look in the rearview mirror and there’s a lot of things we want to do different and change.”
Tech loses 14 total seniors from it’s 2017 squad, nearly all of them important pieces to the team. The passing game, especially, could take a hit as quarterback Quinn McQueary took the final snaps of his Oredigger career against SOU.
He finishes with 6,682 yards passing, 686 yards rushing and 68 total touchdowns in his career at Montana Tech. That type of production won’t be easy to replace.
The ‘Diggers also lose three standout wide receivers — Chris Kelly, Sean Sullivan and Chris Lachance.
“We did a lot of good things here,” Sullivan said. “We went from 1-9 seasons to conference championships. We’ll hold our heads high and the guys coming back will be just fine next season.”
One of the biggest boons for the 2018 iteration of the Orediggers will be having Dion Williams back. The wideout caught 77 balls this season — a school record — for over 1000 yards. He finishes the regular season fifth in the NAIA in total receptions and 10th in receiving yards.
Having Williams on the outside will also help out next year's presumed starter, Davan Norris. In limited action Norris completed 46-of-66 passes for 516 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Sandpoint, Idaho native is a 6-foot-3 mobile quarterback with a strong arm, though perhaps a bit more of a pocket passer than the elusive McQueary. Norris — just a redshirt freshman this year — has served in a backup role for two seasons now and has plenty of experience.
McQueary was injured off-and-on during his time in Butte, which allowed Norris far more first-team reps than he might normally have gotten.
Morrell and the rest of the coaching staff hope it provides some dividends.
“He’s taken a lot of legitimate snaps, understands all the protections and can make the throws,” Morrell said. “It was great to have him step in when Quinn couldn’t go for us.”
Norris will have three returning offensive lineman back to protect him, but losing center Jalen Whitley will be difficult.
The defensive line takes even more of a hit as Tyler Saunders and Levi Dawes will be missed dearly. Saunders had a tremendous year, tying for second on the team in tackles with 48. Of those 48 tackles, 5.5 went for loss, which was tied for third on the team.
Tech will get Chance Hansen — who had 5.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss — back for one more year and need another huge season from him.
The linebackers and secondary also will be missing some familar faces next year as those two groups lose three starters. Linebacker Brock Polley and cornerback Andre Brown will both be important positions the team will need to fill. Junior linebacker Connor Wines could take even more of a leadership role next year and is coming off a 10 sack year. That mark ranked fifth in the regular season nationally.
As with the test of the seniors, however, Brown feels like he left Tech in a better place than he found it.
“I feel accomplished,” Brown said. “Great career, great set of guys, great team and I’m going to leave here with a great degree. I take no negatives out of here, everything was great.”
There’s been plenty of flashes this season from some of the younger players to give Morrell plenty of hope that next season won’t be as much of a rebuilding year as it is one where they’ll simply be able to reload.
Star running back Jed Fike (174 carries, 1275 yards) will be the workhorse Tech relies on next year as Tech breaks in a new starting quarterback. Fike is also a threat out of the backfield and caught 15 passes for 349 yards. He ended the season with 18 total touchdowns.
There will be some new faces in next year’s Oredigger lineup, but there’s reason for optimism for Montana Tech fans.
“We got a great group of young men in our program and I’m excited about the guys we have coming up,” Morrell said. “Excited for the group that redshirted and then it’s just time for us to go recruit the next great group of guys.”