There are many question marks for the C.M. Russell High football team this season.
How will it replace all 11 starters on defense? How will Karl Tucker II fare in his transition to full-time quarterback? What about its inexperienced offensive line? The new group of wide receivers?
A lot of questions. Not many answers. You start to worry a bit.
And then you remember Andrew Grinde is returning for his senior season.
And, like that, all of those worries are forgotten.
For the most part.
The combination of Grinde, the Yale commit, and Tucker II, the Montana State commit, automatically makes the Rustlers – whether it’s right or wrong – part of the discussion as a potential state champion.
After all, they were so close last November.
“I was proud of the kids to get to there,” head coach Gary Lowry said of last year’s title game in which they lost 56-19 to Glacier. “We could have played better, but still, I have a great memory of these kids and they busted their butts for us all year long.”
Lowry expectations are tempered because, quite frankly, he doesn’t really know what he has. He’ll have a better idea when the Rustlers take the field at Memorial Stadium at 4 p.m. on Aug. 28 against Kalispell Flathead.
“Like I told the kids last year,” Lowry said, “we go into every drill as the next thing you have to worry about. So we’ll take it day by day and drill by drill and see how things go and try to get better at everything we do. That’s the only way to do ‘er.”
Lowry remembers his first year as head coach — after three decades as an assistant, he took over for the revered Jack Johnson, who retired in December 2013 — with great fondness.
“I don’t know, it flew by pretty fast,” he said. “I think, of course, I had a great bunch of seniors, and I have a lot of respect for what they did for our program. They were real team guys, and I’m going to miss all of them. It was a fun year. It was quick and it flew by, and now I’m ready for another year.”
Like any new football season, players are lost to graduation. And Lowry lost some good ones from a team that went 10-3.
“Oh, I don’t know if you can peg one guy,” he said. “We had a lot of good seniors last year, but I think just the group as a whole, they won some games last year just because of the unity they had together and playing for each other. I think that helped them through the season and some tough times.
“You go down the list, obviously those Jed (Engebretsen) and Payton (Sexe) kids on defense were quality kids. We are going to miss them. And those O-lineman, we are going to miss all those O-lineman. Bryce Cuchine, of course, everything he did for us. There were a lot of good kids that we are going to miss. Hopefully we have kids step up this year.”
The Rustlers were fifth in the league in scoring in 2014 at 28.2 points per game. Behind Grinde, they amounted the second-most yards on the ground, accumulating 223 per contest and were second only behind Glacier in total offense with 399 yards a night.
“I think we’ll be pretty similar on offense,” Lowry said. “Of course with Andrew, and then we move Karl to quarterback. That’s going to give us some options there that we had last year with Karl, but now him being able to throw the ball and not subbing people in like we did with Dallas (Farren) and him last year. I think that’ll give us some options there that maybe we didn’t have last year.
“We’ll have good receivers. Our O-line is going to be decent. We have a good mix of kids there to begin with. We just have to see how they come around. You know, that’s the thing: You never know right now going into the start of the season how things shakedown and how kids step up. I like our offense. I think we have some good experienced kids over there, and I think they’ll be a pretty good bunch.”
Senior Karl Tucker II (6-1, 205) will take over for the graduated Dallas Farren.
Tucker II, who played wide receiver as a junior, has experience taking snaps at quarterback; he saw plenty of action in the “Wildcat” formation last season when, during the regular season, he ran the ball 91 times for 446 yards and eight scores.
He wasn’t asked to throw the football, however, as he was just 2-for-4 through the air for 33 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Tucker II didn’t throw the ball much in the team’s scrimmage, but he demonstrated his ability to extend plays and make positive gains with his feet.
“Karl has worked hard on throwing the ball,” Lowry said. “We just didn’t throw him last year; he never worked on it. He was a run guy and everybody in the state knew that. He’s been throwing the ball all winter and this spring and summer. He can throw the ball.”
It should be a smooth transition.
“For one, he understands our offense because he ran it all last year,” he said. “He had to make calls at the line of scrimmage last year as the quarterback. He understands what we want to do running the ball. And he obviously knows what we want to do throwing the ball (after) playing receiver. So he’s worked hard at throwing the thing and getting his footwork down and all that type of thing ready because he knows he’s going to throw the ball this year.”
Junior Lane Jensen (5-9, 155) will be second string.
“He’s a pretty good backup kid,” Lowry said. “He’ll be a good quarterback for us. Baseball kid and placed in the javelin last year at the state track meet. Good arm, smart. He understands the offense.”
Grinde broke the school record for rushing yards in a single season last year with 2,180. He ran for 20 touchdowns. In the regular season, he caught 26 balls for 476 yards and three scores.
While it’s no secret that Lowry wants to run the football, a balanced between pass and run is critical, if only to preserve Grinde for the entire season and avoid wearing him down.
With that said, how does Lowry foresee using Grinde in the offense this season?
“Give it to him as much as we can,” Lowry smiled. “No, we can’t do that. I mean, he’s a good player, obviously, everybody knows that in the state after watching him the last two years and I know that.
“But we can’t plan on giving him the ball 80 percent of the time, either, so that’s why Karl is going to take a little pressure off of him running the ball, too, and then being able to throw it. We are going to try to use everybody. We are a run-first team obviously and in Montana, like I said last year, coming down to the end of the year where it’s cold and crappy, you like to run the ball. We are a run-first team but with other options, too, so Andrew’s not taking the whole load on himself.”
Senior Trevor Pepin (6-0, 175) and junior Xavier Pace (5-8, 165) will be backups.
“Trevor Pepin has played tailback and some receiver and we moved him to full-time receiver now, but he’ll still be a backup tailback,” Lowry said. “He’ll be a good receiver, too. He’s got good ball skills, a good runner. I mean he’s a 1,000 yard rusher a year, too, if he’s not sitting behind Andrew. Very capable runner, so I feel comfortable with him backing up. And Xavier Pace is a junior that’s a good athlete.
The offensive front for the Rustlers is very unproven. Senior Noah Danielson (6-3, 230) is the sole returning player after starting last season. He will play left tackle.
“He’s a quality O-lineman,” Lowry said.
The Rustlers lose standout offensive linemen Ryan Millhollin and Bryan Wilkes to graduation. Both were first team All-State selections, and Wilkes is now at Montana State.
The rest of the line was still very much up in the air as of the middle of August.
“It’s a question mark, obviously,” the head coach said of the offensive line. “You lose that many good kids, but those kids last year, we only returned two kids last year that ever played. So those other kids stepped up and hopefully these kids do the same. There’s some talent there, obviously. We just need to get them in the right place and get them playing.”
Among those competing for the other four spots: senior Mason Sprague (6-0, 220), senior Nick Malisani (5-8, 208), senior Preston Rardon (5-9, 195), junior Adam Agamenoni (6-0, 253), junior Ryan Hannah (6-0, 205), junior Brayden Ginnaty (6-0, 242) and junior Aaron Rucinsky (6-1, 173).
“The rest of those kids are going to battle it out,” he said. “ … They all move pretty well. With our offense, we don’t have great big guys in there. We like for them to be able to move and we pull them a lot.”
Senior Walker McAllister (6-2-205), who played sparingly last year, mostly in double tight end formations, will be the starter in 2014. He takes over for Kam Mims, who graduated.
McAllister has “waited his time,” Lowry said.
“He will be a good tight end for us,” he said. “He’s a smart kid. He’s worked hard in the weight room. He’ll give you a good effort all the time. Just his attitude. He’ll have a good year.”
Junior Isaiah Chargois (6-0, 190) is his backup.
“We have him in about four different spots,” Lowry said.
It’s an inexperienced group of pass catchers, but one that Lowry has confidence in.
Cuchine, the speedster who’s now at Montana Western, had 25 catches in the regular season, was third on the team in catches behind Tucker II and Grinde, and sparkled in the return game. Another sure-handed receiver, Zach Harper, graduated as well.
“We’re obviously going to miss Bryce and everything he did for us, but I like these kids,” Lowry said. “I feel like they have a good attitude. They can all catch the ball. The can run after they catch it and they are good blockers. They are hard-nosed receivers, which you have to have when you’re a running team like we are.”
Seniors Trevor Pepin (6-0, 175), senior Chris Moore (6-1, 153), Patrick McAllister (6-1, 175) are the three most likely to start. Juniors James Olsen (6-1, 181) and Jake Horner (5-8, 140) will provide depth.
The uncertainty hits a whole different level with the defense.
And Lowry isn’t afraid to admit it.
“We lose everybody on defense,” he chuckled.
Everybody is right. The Rustlers have to find 11 new starters. It’s amplified by the departures of Payton Sexe, a first team All-State defensive end who’s now at Carroll, and Jed Engebretsen, a linebacker who was tabbed first team as well.
“Payton and Jed, those are guys you can’t replace,” the head coach explained. “You don’t have guys like that every year. Those are two of the better kids we’ve had play those positions. It’s hard to lose them. And we had some DBs who had good years. The defense, for really being an unknown defense, had a great season for us last year. It was kind of a blue-collar bunch, and I think these guys are like that. Without a lot of big names on there, I still think they are going to be a solid defense. I think they’ll be aggressive. I think they’ll be good tacklers. I think they’ll be smart and understand what’s going on.”
In 2014, CMR ranked fifth in points allowed at 20.3 points a game, 13th against the pass (205 yards allowed), fifth against the run (102.9) and sixth in total defense at 307.9 yards.
Senior linebacker Sean Morris (5-11, 197) is the most experienced player returning on defense. Still, Lowry hopes they can evolve as the season progresses just like the group did last year and prove to be opportunistic and overachieve the same way.
“I like the looks of the kids over there,” he said. “I like what I’ve seen so far … They have good attitudes. They’ve worked hard. All of those kids who are going to be seniors have watched what’s going on. They’ve played football, too. It’s not like they don’t get to play games … There are question marks, obviously, cause they haven’t played varsity football but football is football once you blow that first whistle.”
Seniors Dyllon Scott (6-2, 200), Chase Bruggeman (6-0, 201) and Tyler Burcham (6-1, 182) will rotate in the two end positions in the 3-4 defense.
“I like all three of them,” Lowry said. “They all have good motors.”
At nose guard, juniors Austin Kirchner (6-0, 240) and Jack Bedenbender (5-10, 201) will play while the ends could provide depth. Lowry likes to rotate players on the defensive line as much as possible to keep them fresh.
“We have five kids right there who are going to be playing,” he said.
Morris, at strong side backer, will be asked to lead.
“He’s experienced,” Lowry said. “He got a lot of snaps. He probably played as much as any of those guys (at linebacker last year), just at different spots. … He’s a good football player, a good, quality kid. He’ll be a good leader out there. He understands what’s going on. Obviously playing four different spots last year he can help other kids out and we look for him to do that this year on defense. Because you look at it, he’s the only kid who’s got much playing time on our defense.”
Senior Connor McAllister (5-9, 166) and juniors Alex Cunningham (5-11, 194) and Dan Bonilla (5-11, 180) are battling for the spot on the weak side. Seniors Tanner Farren (5-7, 157) and Caleb Kindler (5-10, 196) and junior Max Sechena (5-10, 175) are vying for two spots in the middle.
Senior Anthony Nosari (5-8, 151) has been moved to corner after previously playing tailback. Nosari and seniors Knox Semenza (6-0, 163), Hadyn Cummings (5-10, 173) and Bridger Gerard (5-10, 167) are jockeying for position, as well as junior Wyatt Bleskin (6-1, 170).
“I think moving Anthony over there, I think that’ll be a good spot for him,” Lowry said. “He’s never played over there but he’s got good feet. He runs really well. I think he’ll take to it well. Bridger Gerard had a good camp at safety.”
At corner, senior Dylan Sandefur (5-9, 165), junior Deven Altenburg (5-5, 122) are doing the same. Connor McAllister could play here as well. The best 22 players will play, whatever is best for the team, Lowry said. If that’s a junior over senior, he continued, so be it.
“There were some overachievers there that played last year and really had good seasons for us,” he said. “I’m hoping that happens with these guys. We’ll see what happens. It’s a place you have to be solid. The kids have to believe. You have to be smart and know whats going on because having a bad secondary is a fast way to run out your kickoff return team.”
Dylan Sandefur returns as kicker, which he’s done for three seasons. Sean Morris, the linebacker, will punt like he did a season ago.
“That’s good not having that question mark going into a season,” Lowry said. “… It takes a little pressure off that area of the kicking game.”
The staff remains the same as 2014. Mitch Maki is the quarterbacks and wide receivers coach. Travis Crawford will head the running backs. Scott Hartman is the offensive line coach, Mike Henneberg the defensive backs and Brian Greenwell the defensive line. The linebackers coach is Aric Hagen.
By Steve Schreck, who covers high school sports for the Tribune and can be reached at 791-1492 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GFTribSSchreck