UMW football

Freshman defensive back Jake Malek goes high into the air to break up a pass during one of Thursday's spring-camp drills, Thursday at Montana Western.

DILLON – The Montana Western football team is grateful to the NAIA voters who picked the Bulldogs as the No. 19 team in the final Top 25 poll pf 2016.

The Bulldogs are equally grateful for the No. 15 ranking in the final poll of 2015.

But with all due respect, that’s not exactly what Western is after.

The Bulldogs started spring camp last week, not with an eye on the rankings but with their focus on a Frontier Conference championship and trip to the NAIA playoffs.

Montana Western finished third last season, with a 6-4 in-conference record. They won seven of 10 conference games the previous season, with another third-place finish.

So what’s it going to take for the Bulldogs to get over the hump?

Part of that answer has a lot to do with last season. The Bulldogs were on the cusp of achieving some of the high expectations they had for themselves, so Step 1 was to go back and see where they fell short.

“It was really just a few things and coming down to perfecting those things,” said Ryan Nourse, who is starting the second season of his second stint as the Bulldogs’ head coach. “For me too. As a play-caller, what am I going to do better or different? What’s our line coach going to do better or different? How are we going to practice better, more efficiently and more effectively? All of those things will be taken into consideration.”

The Montana Western football team had a successful season in 2016. But the fact that their success was only good for the third spot in the standings – behind Montana Tech and Eastern Oregon, respectively – serves as a strong indicator that the Bulldogs have room to be stronger, quicker and better.

“I think it really drives the kids,” Nourse said. “They want to be pushed. They want to be challenged. They want to feel uncomfortable and be put in situations where it’s going to be pressure-packed. They want it to come down to my catch, or my block, or my tackle. They want that.”

Western emerged from 2016 as one of the best teams in the conference when it came to defending against the pass.

Junior defensive back Zach Janis, who broke up 12 passes and had four interceptions last season, is already looking ahead. His focus is more on what the defense can do better rather than how far the Bulldogs can go. It’s the approach that makes the most sense for spring camp.

“Last year, we improved big-time as a DB group but getting over the hump defensively would be getting off the field on third down and creating more turnovers,” said Janis, a native of Yakima Washington. “It’s a challenge we want. Going up against SOU (Southern Oregon), EOU (Eastern Oregon) and their speed, that’s a challenge for anybody but we like to control the game defensively.”

Bruising running back Sam Rutherford has played his last game at Montana Western, opening the door for Hunter Thomsen to take most of the reps from the backfield.

It’s a pretty safe bet that he’s ready to show what he can do, especially after leading the Bulldogs in rushing last season.

Rutherford saw limited action over the last two seasons because of injuries, giving Thomsen the chance to get his feet wet sooner than expected.

“The reps I got then have helped me tremendously,” said Thomsen, who rushed for 809 yards in nine games last season, and just over 1100 yards in his Western career. “It’s a little bit different because I don’t have a lot of the running backs that I have been practicing with in the past. It’s a whole new crowd so there is a lot of teaching and helping them out and watching them. But at the same time I have to get my work done and focus on what I am doing wrong and what I can do better.

“Last year’s experience on the field really helped me out but I can’t want to get out on the field and get the majority of the reps this year.”

While Thomsen is hoping for a big senior season, he had not looked past the big picture.

“Our focus is more on consistency,” said the graduate of CMR. “If we had more of a consistent season last year, we might have gotten to that playoff spot. We finished on a high note and it’s kind of carrying over.”

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