(Montana Sports Information) Montana head football coach Bobby Hauck is fond of saying “You only get better at football by playing football.”

During UM’s run to the 2023 National Championship, the Grizzlies benefited from 29 extra practices between the end of the regular season and the title game.

Sure, that was 29 extra practices for the 11 starters on offense and defense to perfect game plan. It was also 29 opportunities for young guys and those not in the regular rotation to improve themselves in hopes cracking the lineup in the fall of 2024. Such is the reality of college football. Players come, they graduate, and it’s next man up.

When the Grizzlies take the field at 6 p.m. on Friday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the annual GSA Spring Game, they’ll have added 15 more opportunities for the defending Big Sky champs to get better over the last month.

For Hauck, perhaps no one has benefitted more in the combined winter and spring practice period than the underclassmen, and those still looking to find the field. Spring is their chance to prove what they’ve got and move their way up the depth chart after all.

As iron sharpens iron, with 44 practices of extra work over the last five months the Griz have come a long way in a relatively short time.

“Those practices in the winter were great because we ran them like bowl prep, so our young guys got the chance to scrimmage and practice a bunch and that was huge in terms of progress for the guys on the team that hadn’t been playing. They almost got an extra spring season, so it was great for them,” said Hauck.

“I thought the vast majority of guys in that situation coming into the spring were way ahead of where they would have been. I thought there were sharp, and I just think it was miles ahead.”

Fifteen division one college football games is taxing on a body, no matter how good a shape you’re in. So spring is also a time of opportunity for some of the starters to get the bumps and bruises from the previous year healed up, which in-turn creates even more opportunities for guys on the outside looking in.

“Like anything else, there’s plusses and minuses. The negative side to playing 15 games is that you have some banged up bodies during spring ball, but those guys will all make it back and be ready for summer. It’s a negative for those who can’t play but a real positive physically for the guys getting thrown in the fire. There’s a lot of good going on, a lot of good work for young guys,” added Hauck.

All of the extra work will be on display Friday for the final practice of the spring when Montana splits the team into maroon and silver squads and runs through four, 15-minute, running clock periods of live action for fans to enjoy and preview the upcoming season.

Let’s take a look at some key position groups and some of the players who have benefitted well from all the additional minutes of action. But first…

SPRING GAME BASICS: Tickets for the spring scrimmage can be purchased at GrizTix.com and at the Adams Center Ticket Office the day of the game. All tickets to the event are general admission and cost $10 each. University of Montana students get in free with a valid Griz Card.

The GSA will host a pregame tailgate party starting at 4 p.m. in "The Den," located on the 200 level of the east side of the stadium. The tailgate is free to enter and open to all fans. All proceeds from the event go to support the GSA in its mission to provide scholarships for student-athletes.

Fans not able to attend the Spring Game can tune in to a broadcast of the game on SWX TV Nonstop Local Sports, available over the air and on Spectrum Cable across Montana and the Inland Northwest.

“Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran and former Grizzly QB Grady Bennet will have the call from Washington-Grizzly Stadium, and Shaun Rainey will report from the sidelines.

As a reminder: season ticket holders have until this Friday, April 12, to renew their seats for the coming season.

ADDED TO THE MIX: Fans will get their first chance to see nine of the 10 transfers Hauck and his staff added to the roster over the winter on Friday, with one still set to join the squad for fall camp.

With six of the nine coming to Missoula from the Pac-12 or Mountain West, they’ve made an immediate impact on the squad since arriving in time for winter conditioning. So far, the coaches have liked what they’ve seen from the newcomers. And even though some come from warmer locales, they’ve fit right in.

“I really like the transfer guys we brought in over the winter. They’ve really assimilated well in the team, they’re really good guys and I think they’ve really embraced our culture and way of doing things. They work hard, they’re eager to learn, so they’re working hard to get in the mix,” said Hauck.

“They were here on a weekend when it was 25 below zero and they still wanted to come so it says a lot about them and what they’re looking for which is a good football culture and a winning program.”

THE O-LINE: Under the tutelage of new offensive line coach Joe Pawlak, this year’s Grizzly front was faced with the tall of replacing all-conference standouts and NFL prospects AJ Forbes and Chris Walker, among others.

First team All-Big Sky tackle Brandon Casey is poised to be a three-year starter in the fall and will be a leader in the group, as will Journey Grimsrud, who has flourished since swapping over from the D-line two years ago.

Everett Johnson is a new addition from Cal and has slid right in to the mix, while Cannon Panfiloff was a new addition last year from Utah Tech and has added more size to the group.

Liam Brown, a on-again-off-again starter has perhaps made one of the biggest leaps on the team this spring, however, and has proved his versatility.

“I liked the way our offensive line has played this spring,” said Hauck.

“Liam has played multiple positions, both center and guard. He's done a really good job and is one of the more improved players on the team in terms of playing faster and just becoming a more experienced player. So, I've enjoyed that. The offensive line has played really well this spring.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Montana will also have big shoes to fill in the defensive secondary, with first-team all-conference cornerback Corbin Walker lost to graduation along with NFL hopeful safeties TraJon Cotton and Nash Fouch, among others.

Last year’s transfer corner from Akron Ronald Jackson is expected to see increased minutes in his second season at UM, and Kenzel Lawler of Utah was brought in over the winter to add more depth to a room that already has one of the nation’s leaders in interceptions in Trevin Gradney.

Fresno State transfer Chrishawn Gordon has put his hand up during spring ball as a potential star among the safeties as well, with starter Ryder Meyer and TJ Rausch among the returners expected make an impact this year, no matter the position.

“There’s five spots, weather its free or boundary safety, nickel safety and the corner spots. We’ve been moving some guys around to see who fits and it’s been good for guys to be versatile enough to play all those spots, and we’ve got some guys who can play all five,” added Hauck.

“I’ve really been impressed with Chrishawn Gordon. I mentioned the name Riley Wilson a year ago. No one knew who he was, and he had a great fall. I think Chrishawn is working his way to a place where he could have a real impact next year.”

LINEBACKERS: Speaking of Wilson, the second-team all-conference junior proved to be a defensive dynamo in his first year at UM with one of the highest sack totals in the league. He’s been one of the guys limited this spring, however, opening the doors for some of the next generation of stars at “Linebacker U.”

Standouts among the newcomers include Vai Kaho, a big and physical senior from San Diego State that has also made a good first impression.

Special teams has always been a proving ground for Hauck’s Grizzlies, and the linebackers getting extra reps this spring are no different.

Cooper Barnum started his time at UM as a safety before moving to linebacker and featuring heavily on special teams last year when he logged 14 tackles and a sack.

“We’ve had some guys not being able to take a lot of spring practice so some guys that haven’t played bunch have gotten a lot of repetitions and scrimmage reps, so that’s been good. Cooper Barnum has really made a step up and Vince Genatone has done a nice job. They’ve both improved and have stuck out,” Hauck said.

QUARTERBACKS: It wouldn’t be a college football spring season (of fall camp for that matter… or regular season… or postseason) if the eyes of the fanbase weren’t on the quarterbacks.

There’s good reason for intrigue at Montana this spring, however.

Offensive Coordinator Brent Pease has five options on the roster this spring, but just three who have ever taken a live college football rep, and two that have made a start.

Newcomer Logan Fife of Fresno State has the deepest resume after winning 5 games as a backup for Jake Hainer as a Bulldog. He and Sam Vidlak both come from Mountain West programs, but Vidlak was limited in his exposure at Boise State and slipped down the depth chart in his first year at UM.

Then there is Keali’i Ah Yat, who moved into the backup role later in the year as a true freshman last season and showed flashes of brilliance. Reps for players like him and sophomore Kaden Huot out of Helena, who has also flashed this spring, are like gold as the coaches look for the cream to rise to the top.

“There’s been progress in the quarterback room. Good days and bad days,” said Hauck.

“I like the attention to detail. I like the fact that they're tough-minded guys. They're not afraid to mix it up. If we made them live in the spring, I think most of them would be alright with that. They're really competitive, and they’ll have to keep competing through the summer to figure out who will start for us.”