MISSOULA -- Coach Bob Stitt won't name a starter at quarterback, but he's awfully blunt when addressing the subject as fall practices begin this week.
"It's basically Brady's job until somebody beats him out," said Stitt of his junior passer, Brady Gustafson.
Gustafson entrenched himself in the No. 1 spot during spring drills, starting there because of seniority and never relinquishing his hold. The spot isn't safe with just over three weeks until the season opener, but it appears to be growing more secure by the day.
Montana's boon at QB enters fall divided as it was in spring, with Gustafson leading a pack of several pursuers. The group has shrunk to four or five from seven in April: Colter Trent was cut this summer, sophomore Will Weyer won't join the team until school begins and true freshman Willy Pflug seems destined for a redshirt season.
Behind Gustafson is a mesh of Chad Chalich, Eric Prater and Makena Simis, all with strong physical attributes and mechanics, but a step behind Gustafson in what happens inside the helmet.
"He just processes information very quickly and that's what our guy has to do," Stitt said. "Get 'em lined up fast and he's got to be able to see how the defense lines up, what his options are and be able to go to that option."
And while Gustafson, a 6-foot-7 mammoth out of Billings West, has the head start from spring, he's confident his work over the summer will provide the staying power for fall.
The quarterbacks were in charge of twice weekly player-run practices during the eight-week stretch between spring ball and fall camp. Gustafson filled the other hours with playbook study and film review.
"Getting some reps over summer and not just coming into (fall camp) cold was real beneficial," Gustafson started. "Little things that I can work on mechanically to get me in the right spot. We worked on it a bit during the summer so hopefully we can only go up from here."
The QB field will be narrowed to two by this time next week as Stitt eyes his Grizzlies' first preseason intrasquad scrimmage as a benchmark. In order to be ready for North Dakota State on Aug. 29, the starting quarterback will need as many practice reps as he can get.
And the fewer players in the running for that starting spot, the more snaps available for each.
"That's why we've got to make a decision early," Stitt said. "You can't continue to give five guys reps.
"You've got to cut it down to two and the third guy's got to take a lot of visual reps."
Though friendly about it, Gustafson's competition isn't prepared to ease off the pursuit just yet. The battle is still hot with only one player emerging from the fray.
"It's not like receiver where there's four (on the field)," said Chalich, a junior transfer last winter from Idaho. "We have to make sure we don't make mistakes, or limit our mistakes.
"Whoever has the better fall will be the guy."
Gamboa returns to practice
Senior outside linebacker Herbert Gamboa was back on the field for Wednesday's practice after missing the Grizzlies' first outing of the fall Tuesday for disciplinary reasons.
Gamboa was arrested last week and pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct on Monday. He will miss Montana's season opener at the end of the month while serving a one-game suspension.
In his place at outside linebacker Tuesday was Connor Lebsock, another senior who saw action in all 14 games last year as a reserve. He is the likely candidate to start Aug. 29 against North Dakota State.
Gamboa was practicing with the second-string defense Wednesday to allow Lebsock more snaps with the first team.
Big QB, big arm
Though Gustafson's brains have caught Coach Stitt's eye in his first season at the helm, the QB's height is the first thing an average fan will recognize.
At 6-7 and 235 pounds, Gustafson towers over most every player on the field -- even a few of his offensive linemen.
At Colorado School of Mines, Stitt's last program where he coached the past 15 years, he led QBs of all shapes and sizes.
Last year's passer Justin Dvorak, who threw for 4,287 yards and rushed for another 384, was an even 6 feet. But Chad Friehauf, 2004's Harlon Hill Trophy winner as the Division II player of the year, was a lengthy 6-6. And he set three D-II single-season passing records (yards, completions and completion percentage).
"I like a tall quarterback; everybody thinks we wanted to have a guy that can run around," Stitt said of misconceptions surrounding his offense. "I like a guy who can see things.
"He's got a very good arm. He's got all the physical stuff."
The coaches recognize which QB is making the best decisions in practice – looking off defenders, picking the open man – but Gustafson's receivers have been enamored more by the physical attributes.
"I just want to see him complete some deep balls," said Jamaal Jones, a senior wide receiver, when asked about Gustafson's game. "He started off and just wasn't that confident with himself. Now he's extremely confident.
"He's smart, man. He leads well and he'll get better throughout the year."