Elevated Expectations

ELEVATED EXPECTATIONS: McGourin hoping to channel potential for Griz

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If there was a picture in the dictionary of a pass-rusher, it would look about like Jacob McGourin.

Montana’s redshirt freshman defensive end is 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds (the same measurements as NFL 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young), with a magician’s first step and telescoping arms.

The streets have been buzzing about McGourin since Montana picked him out of Eastern Washington’s backyard — literally, Cheney High School — in 2018. The cherry on top? McGourin’s father, Casey McGourin, played for the Eagles.

“I went there and the Griz culture is just unprecedented,” McGourin told Skyline Sports in 2018. “It was amazing. The coaches there have so much experience, and I feel like I have so much to learn from them. I feel like I fit in better there than anywhere else.”

This was a kid who had 15 sacks and scored six touchdowns as a senior in high school, set a new school record in the discus at over 186 feet — and ran 11.3 seconds in the 100 meters. All that, and he had the wingspan of an NBA shooting guard and the broad shoulders of an old-school ace pitcher.

“I think he’s got a chance to be a special guy,” Hauck said at the recruiting press conference after signing McGourin. “I would compare him to Kroy Biermann at this juncture. That’s a weight to put on a kid’s shoulders around here, but he’s got big shoulders; He can hold it.”

Lofty expectations, indeed. Biermann, a former partial scholarship defensive end from Hardin, finished his Griz career as one of the greatest defensive players in school or Big Sky Conference history. He piled up 32 sacks, 45 tackles for loss and claimed the Buck Buchanan Award as the top defensive player in the FCS his senior year in 2007. He was a fifth-round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons and played nine seasons in the NFL.

Montana defensive end Jacob McGourin (92) against Central Washington in the spring of 2021/ by Brooks Nuanez

The thing is that McGourin, like a lot of players in that Class of 2018, hasn’t gotten much of a chance to show those attributes off yet.

He had two sacks in just four games in 2019, including one against his hometown team Eastern Washington, but didn’t play any more than that to keep his redshirt. He played in both games in the spring season in 2021, with three total tackles, half a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery.

That’s it. Six games since stepping on campus in the summer of 2019 – that’s all the glimpses Griz fans have gotten of the tantalizing talent that McGourin offers.

“Jacob, he’s a helluva player, man,” junior defensive tackle Eli Alford said. “He’s quick as hell. I love watching him fly around. He’s still young to the game, still getting the hang of the plays. I still think he thinks too much, but once he gets to the point where he doesn’t have to think too much, that man is going to be flying around making all types of plays.”

Jacob McGourin and Jace Lewis (34) make a tackle against Portland State in the spring of 2021/ by Jason Bacaj

McGourin is the perfect exemplar of a group that will go a long way towards determining Montana’s ultimate success this year. They joined the program in 2018 or 2019, look the part on the practice field, have made some plays — but haven’t proven themselves over the grind of a full season or the pressure of a conference title chase.

Some of the others, like Ryan Simpson and Cole Grossman, have also been featured in Elevated Expectations.

Their only hurdle to potential stardom is time on the field — which is, of course, the hardest step.

“I’m feeling more ready every day,” McGourin said earlier this month. “It’s definitely exciting. I mean, we haven’t got to play football in a while, so I’m definitely amped up for it.”

Montana’s defensive front/ by Brooks Nuanez

If it’s held them back, the extra time off the field has also helped that group develop. Simpson and Grossman bulked up. So did McGourin, who was listed at 230 pounds in his senior year of high school.

He had to add the weight to play effectively against the run, which is job No. 1 for a defensive lineman in Montana’s scheme.

“I came in pretty skinny, and you know, high school to college is a big transition,” McGourin said. “So I think getting used to the bigger O-line and learning how to play the college techniques was the biggest thing that I had to work on. … We take great pride in how we play run defense. So that was a big thing for me, improving on that.”

McGourin will be a key piece of a Montana D-line that will be deeper this year than it has been since Bobby Hauck returned in 2018.

In the Grizzlies’ first two-deep depth chart, released Monday, McGourin was listed as a backup at defensive end. The two starters, Joe Babros and Justin Belknap, are former Power 5 players, Babros from NC State and Belknap from Arizona. So is the other backup Deari Todd, formerly of Michigan State.

The Griz are expected to rotate heavily on the D-line, bringing in fresh players constantly.

“Playing fresh is playing faster,” McGourin said. “So I mean, you get a chance to have some other guy going for a little bit, and then you get to come out and play your fastest. It’s a pretty cool system.”

Three years in a college weight room, now unleashed to play full-speed all the time? That sounds like the perfect scenario for McGourin to utilize his gifts, which sounds like bad news for the rest of the Big Sky Conference.

“I think (the defensive line) can be good, with the group we have and the energy we bring and the experience we have,” McGourin said. “I think we have a potential to be fierce on the line in every game we play.”

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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