Editors Note: On Friday night, Montana senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes claimed the STATS FCS Devensive Player of the Year award. He is the scond Grizzly to win the accolade, joining defensive end Kroy Biermann, who won the award formerly known as the Buck Buchanan Award in 2007. Holmes led Montana to a second-round playoff berth, leading the country with 18 sacks. Here is our profile on Holmes, written earlier this season as he entered his senior year.
The lineage of dominant pass rushers at the University of Montana runs deep. Everywhere you look, whether it’s in the Grizzlies’ Hall of Fame or in the tunnel that leads into Washington-Grizzly Stadium, each icon is staring you right in the face.
Walk down the tunnel and there’s cutout of Biermann, a Hardin product who played like a havoc-wreaking psychopath, earning the program’s first and only Buck Buchanan Award in 2007 as the top defender in the Football Championship Subdivision. He’s now an Atlanta Falcon.
Check out the engraved faceplates remembering the most deified Grizzlies in the Hall of Fame. There, you’ll find Doug Betters, a standout in the mid-1970s who went on to achieve fame with the Miami Dolphins.
Walk the halls of the Adams Center and you’ll see the plaque engraved for all those that have worn Montana’s hallowed No. 37 jersey, a garment most recently donned by the 2014 Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP Zack Wagenmann. He’s now an Arizona Cardinal.
Look in the trophy case right before you enter the Hall of Fame and you’ll see a picture of 1995 All-America Yohance Manzanares holding up his team’s national championship trophy, the first ever won by the Griz. Roam through the hall further and you’ll see a photo of Tim Bush celebrating after he broke Andy Petek’s record for sacks in a career, a mark Wagenmann now holds. Just below the late Bush — a revered player who died in a mining accident just a few years after his career ended — you’ll see a newspaper cut out praising Petek for setting the Big Sky single season sack record and earning the league’s Defensive MVP.
Since 1987, Montana has produced 10 first-team All-America defensive ends. The lineage is so deep that players like Lance Spencer, Mike Murphy, Corey Falls, Jay Turner and Ciche Pitcher would be hard-pressed to make the Montana Mount Rushmore of defensive ends.
Tyrone Holmes knows full well the tradition of the torch he’s been passed. He’s played opposite Wagenmann for three years. Now the Montana senior has a single season to secure his spot as the next man in a line of legends.
“Those guys that came before us, they can’t make plays for us on Saturday but having that constant reminder of seeing those guys when you walk down the tunnel and knowing how successful the defense has been for ages, it’s clear how important it is,” Holmes said. “When you arrive here as a freshman, you are immersed in this culture of dominance. This is how it’s supposed to be on defense. I came in and broke in with older guys like Wags. They were here with (former head coach Bobby) Hauck. They know. They instilled in me as a young age what it takes. Now I have to live up to it.”
Holmes has had a standout career in his own right. Now that Wagenmann’s gone, he’ll be expected to produce on a Grizzly defensive line on which he’s the only returning starter. But his career has already played out in a quietly prolific fashion.
Holmes, a 6-foot-4, 245-pounder out of Eagle Point, Oregon, enters his final campaign ranked 11th in school history with 16.5 sacks. His 25.5 tackles for loss are the 12th-most ever by a Griz. Numbers like he put up last year when he earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors (7.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss) would put him just outside the top five in school history in each category.
“He’s been slightly overshadowed because he’s had a nice career but the guy on the other side has one of the if not the most prolific career as a pass rusher in this school’s history,” said longtime UM assistant and third-year defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, eluding to Wagenmann’s standout career that ended with school records of 37.5 sacks and 53 tackles for loss. “If they don’t know him now, they will.”
Gregorak has been an assistant at Montana for all but one season since 2003. He’s helped directly mentor NFL players like Jordan Tripp (Miami Dolphins) and Brock Coyle (Seattle Seahawks). He’s worked in close proximity with the likes of Biermann, Murphy and Spencer. He thinks Holmes has the same potential as those who preceded him.
“We meet a lot on defense and more times than not, I’m picking out plays of Tyrone Holmes,” Gregorak said. “He runs, he scrapes, he hustles. It’s the type of stuff that will give him a shot at the next level. Kroy Biermann, if you want to compare defensive ends, and Zack Wagenmann, not huge, imposing people. Kroy is now eight-year NFL Kroy. But Kroy was a 245-pound guy here. So was Wags. Tyrone is about 45, 46, never more than 250. But they all work their tails off and the way they practice translates to Saturdays. I think he could get an opportunity on Sundays with a great senior season, which I know will happen.”
First-year Montana head coach Bob Stitt noticed Holmes right away once the team began spring drills. Stitt and his offensive staff tracked Holmes’ pass rushing and totaled he had 37 sacks during the five-week session. Stitt said “we simply couldn’t block him.”
The spotlight has followed the true senior since. He was Stitt’s choice to represent the Grizzlies at the Big Sky Kickoff media convention in Park City, Utah. By most accounts, he’s had the strongest off-season of any Grizzly. Now he’s ready to embrace the challenge ahead of him.”
“If there is pressure, it’s all from myself and I love it,” Holmes said. “I’ve waited for a long time to be the guy and now it’s here. I’m excited for the opportunity to step up and be the guy. I have faith in the work I’ve put in in the off-season. I have faith now that the plays will come to me and I can make them.”
Another thing all the great Montana defensive ends from the last 20 years share is kept in the jewelry box. Montana claimed 12 straight Big Sky Conference championships between 1998 and 2009. Add in titles in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 2011 and Montana has claimed 15 of the last 22 league crowns. But the Griz have yet to hang a banner during Holmes’ time patrolling the end. It’s something he hopes changes in his final season in maroon.
“The expectations are it. It’s the reason you come to Montana,” Holmes said. “You come to Montana because you want to win a national championship. That’s the bottom line. You go here to win. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to be at that level but it’s definitely a driving force. We know that the tradition is there. We believe we have the talent and the coaching to do it. So why not? Why not this year?”
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