On January 12, the Montana Grizzlies announced that they had hired C.J. Cox as their new cornerbacks coach.
“C.J. is a terrific young football coach,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said in a news release at the time.
Eighteen days later, on January 30, Sacramento State announced J.B. Hall as its new cornerbacks coach.
“J.B. is an excellent young coach that comes highly recommended,” Hornets coach Jody Sears said at the time.
The move completed a swap that saw Cox and Hall switch places with each other. Hall had been at Montana for three years before being replaced by Cox, while Cox had just finished his first year at Sac State.
Saturday, both will be on the field in their new colors as Montana and Sac State play each other in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“Knowing the expectations and what the crowd will be like and what the culture there is, it’s something familiar,” Hall said in a phone interview Wednesday night. “It’s nice to go back to, but obviously it’ll be a little bit different this time.”
Hall came to Montana in 2015 as part of Bob Stitt’s staff. A former wide receiver at Adams State, he’s also been a graduate assistant for Colorado. He wasn’t one of the few members of Stitt’s staff that was retained when Hauck took over the Montana job last December.
Instead, Hauck hired Cox, who played under Hauck at UNLV. After his playing days, Cox spent four years as a graduate assistant and recruiting coordinator with the Rebels before going to Sac State in 2017.
When his former coach came calling, Cox decided that one year with the Hornets was enough. He became the youngest member of Hauck’s new staff at Montana.
“He’s done a good job,” Hauck said. “They’re playing well.”
Montana didn’t make Cox available for an interview.
At Sac State, Cox helped Dre Terrell lead the Big Sky Conference in interceptions last season on the way to third-team All-Big Sky honors as a junior.
An animated figure on the sidelines at practice, Cox has an inexperienced cornerback group playing well. Dareon Nash and Justin Calhoun are both new starters, with Calhoun switching from wide receiver before the start of fall camp and Nash making the move from receiver midway through last season. But the Griz are surrendering under 300 yards passing a game.
Nash has two interceptions, including a pick-six in a 48-16 win over Drake two weeks ago. He and Calhoun are tied for the team lead with eight total passes defended through three games.
Meanwhile, Hall, after losing his job with the Grizzlies, ended up at Sacramento State to fill Cox’s shoes under Sears, a defensive minded head coach who called plays for Paul Wulff at Eastern Washington and Washington State before serving as the head coach at Weber State for two seasons before his five seasons leading the Hornets.
“I wanted to go to a place where I could continue to learn and grow as a young coach, but also be around good people,” Hall said.
Hall inherited Terrell, a key competitor in one of the best secondaries in the league. Senior safety Mister Harriel earned first-team All-Big Sky honors last season on a unit that led the league in sacks and also featured first-team All-Big Sky defensive end George Obinna and all-league linebacker Manoah Pearson. So far, the Hornets have been a tad better than Montana, giving up just 261 passing yards per game.
For all the talk about the coincidental paths of their careers, neither coach will have much time to think about that on Saturday. Both Montana and Sac State have dangerous wide receiver groups, maybe some of the best in the conference.
For Montana, Cox will have to deal with the Hornets’ Andre Lindsey and Jaelin Ratliff. The duo finished first and second in the country last year in yards per catch and have the speed to beat any defense in the FCS over the top.
“Having good speed, it really stretches that defense, and that’s the one thing that we’ve been able to do the last couple of years,” Sears said. “If you’re going to throw an extra guy up there to stop the run, that’s fine, just know that — and the film says it — those guys can go.”
The Montana corners were burned for two deep touchdowns last week by brutish, big Western Illinois wide receiver John Brunner, so Sac State’s sprinters should be a good test.
On the other side, the Grizzlies go four deep with maybe the most diverse and talented receiver group in the conference — Keenan Curran, Jerry Louie-McGee, Sammy Akem and Samori Toure each can beat defenses in a variety of ways.
“I’ve practiced against those guys, so it’s one of those things where I’m excited to see what they’re going to do when the lights come on,” Hall said. “All those guys have specific skill sets that they use, and their coaching staff has done a really good job putting them in space. And they’ve got a really good quarterback. It’s going to be a tall task for us, that’s for sure.”
Photos by Lacey Young, Jason Bacaj and Brooks Nuanez. Colter Nuanez contributed to the reporting of the story. All Rights Reserved.