MISSOULA —The Montana Grizzlies' production through the air was on par with playoff-caliber teams last season, despite the team finishing with a 6-5 record.
The Griz averaged 326.5 yards passing per game — good for fifth in the FCS.
The four teams with higher passing yardage averages were Eastern Washington (401.0), Sam Houston State (368.3), Samford 349.4) and Southern Illinois (331.6).
"We could have been even better,” wide receiver Justin Calhoun said. “We had a lot of drops last year. Even though our numbers were well, we still had a lot of drops.”
Some parts of the offense will be different from last season — Brady Gustafson won’t be under center and the coaching staff changed up the playbook.
But the wide receivers aren’t worried about the potential lack of production.
The Griz return the top three receivers from 2016, all of whom had more than 600 yards receiving.
Montana’s leading wideout last season — then-redshirt-freshman Jerry Louie-McGee — caught 73 passes for 651 yards through eight games and broke several records along the way.
Calhoun wasn’t far behind his teammate with 42 receptions for 625 yards through 11 games. Keenan Curran was right there too, catching 40 passes for 601 yards receiving.
“It’s not just gonna be me,” Louie-McGee said before naming off Curran, Calhoun, Samori Touri and Mitch McLaughlin. “We’re gonna be working together as a group to help the team out. We have such a great receiving corps, I don’t think there’s gonna be an issue between who’s gonna get higher stats. … We’re set. I’m not even worried about it.”
The offseason helped the corps as well, especially with relationship development.
“I noticed from last fall to spring to now, the relationship with our group has gotten tighter,” Louie-McGee said. “We're all becoming closer friends and better teammates toward one another. Everybody has improved since spring ball. You can see it on the field, you can see it off the field how great we are and how we work together too. I'm really excited for this season. I think we have an amazing group of guys, so it's gonna be really fun."
Before the real fun begins, the receivers — along with the rest of the team — are working on installing the offense, a process that head coach Bob Stitt said was going to take three days.
The first day of practice, according to both Louie-McGee and Calhoun, went well.
“We’re all trying to get back in the groove and get back into our offense, memorize the plays and stuff,” Louie-McGee said. “These first couple days are gonna be the building process. It’s good that we only can get better.”
Calhoun added: “We made a couple mistakes, but we knew that was gonna happen because we changed the playbook around a little bit.”
With those mistakes, comes a learning experience surrounding confidence.
And that’s something Calhoun is personally working on.
“I think the biggest thing is just having confidence,” Calhoun said. “Some guys lose confidence when something bad goes wrong, like if they drop the ball. I just make to make sure I still have my confidence. Even me, sometimes I lose my confidence is something doesn’t go my way, like running the wrong routes. I think we gotta get our confidence back up and we'll be good this year."
That confidence will come with time, just as knowing the knowing the ins and outs of the playbook will too.
“When we get the (playbook) down, we’re going to be good to go,” Louie-McGee said. “We got the talent. We got the speed. We got the depth. We’ve got everything we need.”
Notes: During the first Griz preseason practice on Tuesday, redshirt-sophomore kicker Tim Semenza went viral after completing a high-flying tackle of the new robot tackling dummy during the closed portion of practice.
With a running start, Semenza flipped over the robot during the tackle, sending the team into a celebratory frenzy.
“We don’t get to do that very often,” Semenza laughed. “It was really fun to see all the guys get really excited.”