MISSOULA — Gabe Sulser’s first touch of the football at Montana was a memorable one, taking a handoff for a 53-yard score last year as a true freshman.
The Billings Senior grad and Griz receiver flashed his speed on the play, running around the right side of the Sacramento State defense and up the sideline untouched, sticking out his chest in true track fashion as he crossed the goal line.
Sulser’s quickness has long been a big asset on the football field and track. As he’s adapted to the speed and intricacies of the game at the college level, he’s starting to take on more duties, like being able to play at both the inside and outside receiver positions.
“Coming in as a freshman, especially being a true freshman, you don’t know what the league’s like, you don’t know how fast the game is played,” Sulser said after the Griz played through rain during the fourth practice of fall camp, and the second one in shoulder pads and helmets, on Friday.
“I think that was something I really had to adjust to coming from high school is just the speed of the game is a lot faster. That definitely took some time for me to adjust to. I’m still adjusting, but I think I’m finally starting to get a little bit of the feel for it. It’s been good.”
Lining up at multiple receiver spots in a college offense wasn’t something Sulser was able to do at this point last season, Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder instead primarily played on the inside as a slot receiver.
As the dynamic Sulser has worked to understand the college game and Hauck’s system, he’s been able to process things faster on the field. That in turns lends to better use of his speed.
“He’s a smart guy,” Hauck said. “He knows all the positions, so he can play more than one. That's probably different from a year ago.”
Sulser scored twice during Thursday’s practice and made a diving catch running left to right at the goal line. That came a day after he made a leaping catch on the sideline for a reception of about 25 yards, kept his balance and turned to race up the field.
Hauck said that Sulser looked “good” at each the inside and outside receiver spots.
“He had a good spring. He had a big day yesterday,” Hauck said. “So, that’s the sample we’ve got. He’s done a nice job.”
Sulser has mixed in time at both the inside and outside positions as he’s grasped what’s asked of him. The starting point for receivers in Hauck’s system is to be able to catch the ball in the passing game and block defenders in the run game
Sulser doesn’t know where he’ll line up or how often he’ll play in a deep group headlined by second-team all-conference receiver Sammy Akem. But he’s enjoying being able to contribute at two spots where the speed and spatial awareness required are different.
As an inside receiver, it’s about finding pockets in a zone mostly in the middle of the field. On the outside, speed and being able to beat a corner one-on-one are keys.
“It’s crazy because you play one for a while and get into it, and then you go play another one and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is different,’” Sulser said. “It’s been fun. I think it helps me as a receiver to know both spots. It helps our team as well.”
Sulser made his impact last year by racking up nine catches for 133 yards and three touchdowns in nine games. He added four rushes for 133 yards and one score.
Sulser knows he must work hard to play a bigger role in this year’s offense. At least he doesn’t have the uncertainty of if he’ll redshirt, like he did heading into last year before his name was called in the third game of the season.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Sulser said of year two. “As far as preparation goes, you know what to expect. Getting your timing down with all the quarterbacks, not just the ones you normally are in with at practice, that was a huge help. Just getting the full experience of what college football is, the preparation’s been great.”
Montana redshirt sophomore wide receiver Mitch Roberts has similarly carried over a strong spring camp into the fall.
Roberts had the catch of the day on Wednesday when he made a full-out extension to snag the ball while running deep down the middle of the field on a post route. He made two others catches on passes deep over the middle.
“I don’t know if I need to see more of anything,” Hauck said. “He just needs to keep working and improving. He’s had a good camp. He had a good spring. Any time we have players that are having good spring practices and good training camps, it means we probably have guys that are getting better. Mitch has done a nice job.”
Roberts has played as an outside receiver in his time at Montana after transitioning from being a quarterback at Missoula Sentinel. He has one catch for 6 yards in 10 career games.
Roberts checked into fall camp at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds after an offseason in which he focused more on doing lifts, speed work and foot work.
“After the summer of working out, I feel a lot stronger and faster,” Roberts said. “I definitely have felt it out here on the field in drills and team situations. Just being a little bit more physical with the DBs and blocking, I can hold my blocks a little bit better.”
Returning quarterback Dalton Sneed didn’t take full-team reps for the third consecutive day on Friday. In addition to the jogging he had done, he took snaps and handed off the ball during drills with the offensive line going against the defensive line. He also ran suicides with backup quarterback Cam Humphrey.
Humphrey handled the first-team reps for the third day in a row. He had a touchdown pass during 11-on-11 action when he rolled right and hit Jerry Louie-McGee streaking down the right sideline. He was sacked once and had a pass to Samori Toure broken up by Kadeem Hemphill.
Garrett Graves, handling the second-team reps, had a touchdown pass when he connected with Toure deep over the middle and Toure dodged multiple defenders to emerge from the traffic. He was picked off once by redshirt freshman safety Nash Fouch, who had two interceptions on the day and returned one for a score.
Mykal Tolliver, a Hawaii transfer, forced a fumble after Malik Flowers made a catch. True freshman walk-on Nick Guerena had a diving interception.
Returning starting right tackle Colton Keintz didn’t participate in 11-on-11 work for the second day in a row but was involved in some individual drills. Cy Sirmon, who took over at center in the spring, didn’t participate at all. Both were in full gear.
With them out, sophomore Dylan Cook again started at right tackle for the first-team offense, while sophomore guard Skyler Martin played at center.