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SPOKANE, Washington — Jace Lewis is eager to bring a championship to Montana.

That’s why the Griz senior linebacker is back in Missoula this season as he takes advantage of a sixth season of eligibility. Lewis, a Townsend native, had seen that high potential for the team last fall, but the pandemic ripped away that opportunity, delaying the team’s shot.

“I don’t even think it was a consideration of not coming back,” he said. “I think everybody pretty much knew they were all coming back. We have an unfinished goal that needs to be finished. That’s why everyone bought in more than ever this last year, so it was cool to see.”

Lewis was one of several All-American or All-Big Sky players at the Big Sky Football Kickoff on Monday who would’ve exhausted their eligibility last year. However, the NCAA extended everyone’s eligibility for one season because of the pandemic.

Seniors aren’t forced to return, and coaches aren’t obligated to bring them back. UM returns all its regular contributors who would’ve been seniors last year except for safety Gavin Crow, which gives Lewis confidence this year’s team can accomplish what they envisioned last season.

“I feel like we have a great team, a championship-caliber team,” he said. “I think our depth is the best it’s been for a while. We’re going to be hard to beat this year. It’ll be fun to watch.”

The preparation for this season began when last year’s fall season was postponed. Montana went to work in the weight room and on the practice field.

They played two games in the spring, outscoring Division II Central Washington and Big Sky foe Portland State a combined 107-10. That helped show UM offensive tackle Dylan Cook that something special is coming this fall for the Griz, who were picked No. 2 in both preseason Big Sky polls.

“I think it helped us a lot on a confidence level,” he said. “We know what we’re capable of now. We’re a championship-caliber team. Our potential is through the roof. We don’t really have a ceiling.”

The drive to win a championship that has led UM players to return is one of the reasons other stars around the Big Sky are back for the extra season.

Montana State senior defensive lineman Amandre Williams didn’t want to leave without winning at least one Big Sky championship for the Cats, who made the 2019 FCS semifinals and were tabbed No. 4 in both preseason conference polls this year. The 2019 All-Big Sky honoree felt the chances of that happening would increase as more seniors chose to return.

“Bobcat Nation has a little bit of unfinished business,” he said. “So, coming back, we owed it to the team to put our best product forward and put our team in the best position to win football games, and that’s what I want to come back and do.”

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere came back because he wasn’t thrilled with his final year having been a shortened spring season. The former All-American who led the Eagles to a 2018 national runner-up finish briefly entertained the idea of transferring but decided to stay put, boosting EWU to No. 3 in both preseason conference polls.

“We didn’t get a full opportunity, so I’d like a full season to showcase our stuff,” he said. “Just trying to go out there and win a championship with our guys. I could’ve not been here, so I’m taking everything in and living in the moment.”

Weber State senior receiver and kick returner Rashid Shaheed wasn’t ready for his football playing days to be over. The All-American is back and looking for a fifth consecutive Big Sky title and a national title that’s been elusive for the Wildcats, who are ranked No. 1 in both preseason conference polls.

“I wasn’t ready to hang the cleats up yet,” he said. “We’re still trying to get the championship. We’ve been to semifinals, quarterfinals and all those games plenty of times. Now it’s time to make the next jump.”

For Sacramento State senior running back Elijah Dotson, returning for the extra year is a way for him to better prepare himself for a shot in the NFL. The 2019 All-American will have the chance to do that on a team that shared the 2019 Big Sky title and was picked fifth in both preseason conference polls.

“Having that COVID year back, it humbled me and allowed me to understand I wasn’t as ready for the NFL as I thought I was,” he said. “So, me coming back allowed me to prepare myself even more. I’m just ready to be the best I can be.”

Montana State senior offensive lineman Lewis Kidd, a 2019 All-Big Sky honoree, also wants to play after college and feels another year of growth could better his chances. He also had a bad taste in his mouth of not getting to play last year and wanted one final ride in case pro football never materializes.

“Everybody always talks about how college goes so quick and playing football is gone in a breeze or gone in a snap,” he said. “So, it’s like why wouldn’t I take the extra year, why wouldn’t I enjoy my time here for one more year and get to do something I normally never would’ve been able to.”

Portland State quarterback Davis Alexander wasn’t ready to be done with football, either. He’s one of the top statistical quarterbacks in Vikings history but is still looking for All-Big Sky recognition, which he’ll try to earn while leading a team that was picked 10th in both preseason league polls.

“I love football, so I didn’t want to be done with college football,” he said. “I still got a lot to prove, I think.”

Parker Cotton can be reached at pcotton@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @ByParkerCotton. 

This article originally ran on bozemandailychronicle.com.

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