MISSOULA, Montana — Two years ago, opposing cornerbacks were preparing to handle Justin Calhoun’s speed and explosive play ability. Now it’s Calhoun who is most often drawing the challenge of defending the best offensive perimeter players in the Big Sky Conference.
Calhoun caught 80 passes for 1,210 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first two years as a starting wide receiver at the University of Montana. With the arrival of Bobby Hauck for his second tenure as UM’s head football coach, Calhoun was abruptly switched to cornerback.
Playing opposite of Dareon Nash, himself a converted wide receiver, Calhoun showed fearlessness, aggressiveness and a natural ability to shadow wide receivers. Calhoun played both sides of the ball as a standout at Long Beach Poly, a powerhouse in Southern California. In his first year playing cornerback in college, Calhoun piled up 56 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, six pass breakups and an interception his first year playing cornerback.
“Justin is just a great athlete,” UM senior safety Josh Sandry said. “He’s a guy who you could put on the field at a lot of different positions. He started at receiver but the transition to corner was a pretty smooth one but we are pretty happy to have him at corner.”
Calhoun lined up across from All-Big Sky wide receivers Jaelin Ratliff of Sacramento State, J.J. Koski of Cal Poly, Keelan Doss of UC Davis and David Unger of Idaho during one time or another last season. Although he held his own, Calhoun was not yet a dominant cornerback.
A year later, Calhoun is getting closer to becoming a shutdown corner in his final season as a Grizzly.
“I feel a lot more comfortable than last year,” Calhoun said. “Last year, it was a learning experience. I’m still learning right now. But I feel much more comfortable in my stance and my technique.
“And we are finally comfortable with the defense. We obviously had a coaching change. We knew the defense but we weren’t as comfortable with the plays. Now we are starting to see things and play faster.”
Calhoun, who’s twin brother Jeremy was a three-year starter at running back before exhausting his eligibility last season, had a game-sealing interception in UM’s 31-17 win at South Dakota to open the season. This fall through five games — Montana is off to a 4-1 start — Calhoun has 14 tackles and four pass breakups.
“I think he’s a much better player today than he was 365 days ago,” Hauck said days after the South Dakota win. “He’s worked at it. He had one of the better games of anybody on our team last weekend.”
Montana’s defensive statistics are a bit skewed. Because of the hard-hitting, ball-tracking abilities of ferocious senior linebacker Dante Olson and the reinforcement from the secondary in the run game from Sandry, sophomore safety Robby Hauck and junior safety Gavin Robertson, the Griz have been stout against the run.
In four games against FCS opponents, Montana is giving up 75.7 yards per game on the ground. Opponents are averaging just 2.4 yards per carry.
“The longer you are in a system, the more fluid you are going to be,” Robby Hauck said. “We know the scheme a little better and how all of us play. It definitely helps us to play faster.”
Because of the stiff resistance against rushing attacks, Griz opponents have had to take to the air. UM is giving up 317.6 passing yards per game, the bottom number in the Big Sky. but are giving up just 20 points per outing against FCS opponents. But the Griz also lead the league with seven interceptions, which has played a key factor in Montana averaging 46 points per game against like opponents.
This week, Calhoun and Montana’s back end will get tested again. In two starts, quarterback Matt Struck has thrown for 372.5 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. Idaho State has scored 89 points in those two starts, which are ISU’s two wins entering the matchup in Missoula.
“He can make every single throw on the field and he thinks he can make every single throw, too,” Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie said. “That’s something we are learning to deal with (laughs) but he has been great for us so far.”
Senior wide receivers Mitch Gueller and Mikey Dean are two of the Big Sky Conference’s best. Gueller is averaging an astounding 19.6 yards per catch on 134 career receptions after joining the Bengals following the completion of his professional baseball career. Dean is only 5-foot-6 but has caught 111 passes for 1,767 yards and 20 receiving touchdowns.
“They are both great players and we have our hands full with them,” Hauck said. “No. 2 does a nice job of going up and getting the ball and No. 20, he wants to beat you with his speed, which he can do. We have our hands full. I’m excited for the matchups and it will be fun to compete.”
Calhoun will likely start out on Dean, arguably the fastest player in the Big Sky not named Jerry Louie-McGee. Louie-McGee is the lone senior in Montana’s stacked wide receiving corps, a group that also includes All-Big Sky candidate juniors Sammy Akem and Samori Toure.
Gueller is the best jump ball catcher in the league. Dean has the best big-play ability out of the slot of anybody in the conference. -fot
But Montana’s wideouts are collectively the most dominant group in the Big Sky. The 5-foot-9, 179-pound Louie-McGee is a human joystick who became the first Grizzly to surpass 200 career receptions last week. Toure is a smooth, sudden 6-foot-3, 190-pounder who has 94 catches for 1,344 yards and nine touchdowns in his career.
And the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Akem might be the Big Sky’s best blend of size and speed.
Calhoun could’ve been a part of that arsenal. He likely would have continued producing as a pass catcher. Now Calhoun goes against one of the top position groups in the league every day. Akem, for one, is impressed with his progress since moving to the defensive side of the ball.
“Justin has always been an intelligent guy,” Akem said. “If you ask anybody, he has a super high football IQ. It just kind of frustrates us going against him because he knows us. He was in our room a year ago so he knows us. His improvement is great. He works so hard. You are never going to have an easy time going against him.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.