BUTTE — Seconds after the conclusion of a conditioning drill, the Montana Tech football team hustled to the west end zone of Naranche Stadium.
The coaching staff directed the offense to line up on the 20-yard line and they started to run plays. On the third play, a pass was intercepted by sophomore defensive back Jory Breen and head coach Chuck Morrell's whistle blew, signalling the end of practice.
It was the third pick of the day in a hot — and hotly contested — Thursday afternoon practice. Defensively the Orediggers seemed to shine, especially the linebackers and secondary.
Causing turnovers and, to use one of Tech's buzzwords 'havoc', is an important tenant of defensive coordinator BJ Campbell's philosophy. The Orediggers struggled at certain points last year to do just that and it's an important focus for the team this year.
"We need to be a ballhawk defense and just go out and take balls away," safety Tucker Rauthe said. "Last year we were a little down on our takeaways and that's one thing, as a defensive back group, we want to focus on."
The secondary was certainly engaged during practice, partly due to the fact there's quite a bit of competition at those spots. Rauthe, a junior and Justin May, a sophomore, seem to have the starting safety spots locked down, but Campbell also mentioned Breen and senior Zach Morris as players to watch.
At cornerback, however, things are a lot more convoluted. Tech started most of its 11-on-11 team work with true freshman Jordan Washington and sophomore Michael Delaney.
They're hardly the only contenders. Damaree Morris, Naoki Harmer, Jake Orvis, and Matthew Drake all got significant reps at the two corner positions.
"One of the things I love right now with our corner situation and really our whole defense is that guys are coming out everyday and competing and earning their spot," Campbell said. "In the corner spot, that's not just a place where we lost two starters, we lost a backup guy and rotational guy.
"Every single day the guys we have competing for those positions now are bringing it and are making it hard on us to make decisions."
Veteran LBs making mark
While the Orediggers did lose standout linebacker Brock Polley and his 48 tackles from last year's squad, there's plenty of experience coming back at the position, starting with Connor Wines.
Wines, an outside linebacker, has become one of the vocal leaders of not only the defense, but the entire team. A senior who will be a third-year starter, he'll be counted on to solidify the unit and again rack up tackles by the dozens.
"The best thing he really brings to the table is that intensity and that intestinal fortitude that you need at the linebacker position," Campbell said. "He really is the heart of our defense.
"A guy like that is vital to our success."
Last season Wines was second on the team in tackles (48) and led the squad in tackles for loss (15.0) and sacks (10). A first-team all-conference selection, he's in line for another great season.
In a cast during the spring, he looks healthy and mobile heading into the season. It's certainly helpful for Campbell, who relies on Wines to help get guys in the right spots.
Outside of Wines, senior Nic Amestoy as well as juniors Carter Myers and Danny Mannix all have experience. Amestoy and Myers seem likely to start, but the depth chart is still fairly fluid.
Jacob Clarke, Spencer Schock and Bridger Johnson are also some players who will likely see time in the linebacker rotation or special teams.
"I'll tell you what, I'd hate to be coach Campbell right now making the depth chart choices," Wines said. "I can name off eight guys right now that could be a starter and a dude for us.
"That's awesome for us. Anyone could step up and I'm so impressed with the young guys."
Practice in Naranche Stadium
Tech moved their practice to the home of the Butte High Bulldogs on Thursday to give their players a little different scenery.
The coaching staff wanted to see how the players would react to a new setting and it seemed to work. The trip also served a second purpose as well, especially for athletes new to the program.
"It was a very unique opportunity for us to come down to Naranche and practice," Morrell said. "This is one of the most historic football stadiums in the entire country. We talked a lot about the history and what it means to be from Butte."