PSU football gears up for Griz
Portland State's football game at Montana on Saturday, April 17 won't impact a Big Sky Conference championship.
But it can be argued that it's the most impactful football game for the Vikings in recent memory.
The game — scheduled for 10 a.m. PT and streaming at GoGriz.com — will be the first for the Vikings since Nov. 23, 2019, and a welcome chance for sixth-year coach Bruce Barnum and his staff to see just what they have ahead of what they envision as a 2021 season with plenty of potential.
This game between two programs that opted out of the Big Sky's spring football season is the high point of a 22-practice spring for the Vikings. It is a chance to flash what they believe is some of the best talent to play for Portland State in recent memory.
Having a game to prepare for injected urgency into spring practice, a college football ritual that sometimes can seem more like an obligation than an opportunity.
"It hasn't been a grind at all," Barnum said. "Everybody seems to savor every second."
There was one somewhat sluggish practice, but when Barnum announced that the Montana game had been finalized, the energy returned.
After 16 months without football, there is plenty of buzz around the program.
"I like our team," Barnum said, listing leadership from players such as junior defensive back Anthony Adams (Newberg High), senior quarterback Davis Alexander and others as one of the positives this spring.
"I like our numbers. It's a fast football team. I like our depth in just about every position."
Alexander and Adams, an All-American in 2019, are the names that stand out among 43 returning lettermen from 2019 — 16 of whom have started at some point (seven on offense, seven on defense, kicker Cody Williams and punter Seth Vernon).
Barnum said he loves the depth at almost every position on the field. The exception is on the offensive line. Barnum is happy to have returning senior starters Babak Ghadaksaz and Carlos Barraza and several others who have game experience. But building depth on the offensive line is an ongoing project, he said.
Carlton Lorenz, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt, should help but is the lone Viks' player to suffer a longer-term injury (knee sprain) this spring. Barnum also likes Bubba Wa'a, a redshirt freshman who started two games in 2019 for Hawaii.
However the offensive line shakes out, it will be blocking for some exciting weapons. That starts at quarterback, where Alexander enters his senior season with 25 starts under his belt. The Gig Harbor, Washington, native has passed for 5,947 yards and 41 touchdowns. Most significantly, the 6-0, 195-pound QB is healthy after playing all of 2019 with a separated nonthrowing shoulder suffered in the first 2019 fall practice.
"He's tough," Barnum said, noting that the shoulder routinely popped out of place throughout the 2019 season.
The coach likes the other four QBs, too, though none is ready to challenge Alexander. Dante Chachere, a redshirt freshman from Fresno, California, who appeared in three 2019 games, is the backup.
In fact, overall health is one positive from the tough situation created by COVID. With 17 months between games, players who were banged up at the end of 2019 are fully healthy for spring practice.
That, plus the seniors who were granted an extra year, means the 80 or so players participating in spring football — 13 players either opted out of spring practice or will miss the game because of injuries — is more than the Vikings usually have available at this time of year.
One example of that is the receiving corps, which includes returnees junior Beaverton High grad Mataio Talalemotu (31 catches-459 yards-4 TDs) and junior Beau Kelly (31-442-3). Senior Emmanuel Daigbe (40-651-7) is not available for the Montana game.
David Koetter transferred to Boise State, but new pass catchers include Oregon State transfer Job Dockery, Nebraska transfer Darien Chase and kick return specialist/slot Deion Malone, who had a spectacular run in a April 7 scrimmage.
Tight end, where PSU must replace All-American Charlie Taumoepeau, is the position Barnum says he's most interested to see in action against Montana.
Among six running backs in spring ball, Barnum pointed to redshirt freshman Jobi Malary, a former walk-on out of Barlow High, among the leaders in the backfield along with senior Malik Walker and junior Bishop Mitchell who missed 2019 with an injury.
Offense, of course, has never been the problem for Barnum's Vikings. Realizing that a deeper defense is key to making the most of Alexander's senior season, Barnum said he "didn't tell the defense (coaches) no to anybody" they wanted to bring to PSU.
The result is a deeper defense. Anthony is the headliner and he is joined in the defensive backfield by the return from injury of senior safety Ryan Lesch. Xavier Bell (22 games played for Arizona) is among the transfers looking to boost a defensive backfield that includes a half-dozen redshirts competing.
The deep linebacker corps is led by returnees Nicolas Ah Sam, Dylan Hanley and David Joseph, who ranked three, four and five in tackles in 2019.
Defensive line is a position where PSU added three transfers to join senior Semise Kofe, junior Boogie Davis and three underclassmen.
Special teams should be a strength with Cody Williams the holder of three PSU kicking records and senior Seth Vernon who averaged 43.2 yards per punt in 2019.
For all of the optimism, the game at Montana will be a chance to see a unique snapshot of their strengths and weaknesses heading into 2021.
"I like how we set this up," said Barnum, noting that instead of the traditional 15 spring practices, the Vikings will get in more than 20 ahead of Saturday's game, which will end the on-field work for this spring.
Portland State will take about 70 players on the trip, departing April 15 by bus.
For Montana, it will be the second of two spring games. The Grizzlies beat Central Washington 59-3 on Saturday, April 10.
Barnum would like to see the NCAA approve one game against an opponent every spring, noting that such an opportunity could help motivate players and fan bases and also be a financial boost for programs.
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