Elevated Expectations

ELEVATED EXPECTATIONS: Fouch has established solid role in Griz secondary

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The tweet turned almost as many heads as Montana’s shocking 13-7 upset of Washington in the season opener on Saturday.

“Based on the 247 team talent composite,” it said, Washington had 35 former four- or five-star recruits, according to well-regarded recruiting site 247Sports.

The Griz had zero.

Washington was also listed with 46 former three-star recruits, the Griz with just seven.

Of course, that’s not some great secret. FCS teams will always be at a recruiting disadvantage compared to the 130 FBS programs around the country with higher scholarship limits and greater prestige — let alone a Pac-12 powerhouse like Washington, which can add a half-century of consistent success to that list.

The Grizzlies will also always have skewed numbers because half of the Montana roster will usually be from the Treasure State and, with the exception of exceptional talents like Gabe Sulser, none of those players ever have star rankings even if they someday end up as all-conference or All-American players.

And the Griz proved on Saturday, recruiting is not the only way to build a talented roster.

In both of Bobby Hauck’s stints as head coach, Montana has consistently taken unheralded, unranked recruits and made them better. It’s simple — development takes a high priority over signing prospects with star ratings.

Redshirt sophomore safety Nash Fouch, for instance, came into the program as a 192-pounder who played more wide receiver than safety coming up in Woodinville, Washington, when he signed with Montana in 2018. Three years later, he’s a 205-pound nickelback who started and had four tackles in the upset over Washington at Husky Stadium, just down the road from where he grew up.

Montana’s Nash Fouch pictured here as a redshirt freshman/ by Jason Bacaj

“I’m definitely a lot more physical, and even from the time that I’ve been here in college,” Fouch said. “In high school I played a lot of receiver and more of a deep half safety most of the time, and the position I play now is, I’m down in the box a lot. I’m in the flat, the slot, so I have learned to kind of play with my pads a little more and I’ve gotten a lot bigger and stronger too.”

Fouch’s progress is a great example of how Montana develops players. To start, Hauck puts a huge emphasis on strength and conditioning. The Grizzlies’ winter conditioning workouts are legendarily brutal. If players can handle it, though, that has big upside.

“That helps a lot,” Fouch said. “Being physically tough is one thing … but the biggest thing about winter (conditioning) and all that stuff for us is the mental toughness portion of it. I think being mentally tough plays into being physically tough because if you can push through that stuff, you’re going to be tough.”

All that strength training is only good if it can be put to use on the field. In Montana’s nearly two-decade run of dominance from 1993 until 2009 — the Griz made the playoffs every single one of those 17 seasons, a national record — young players had plenty of role models to teach them how to succeed in Hauck’s system. They could look to older players, who, even without saying anything explicitly, set the tone for the right way to do things.

Montana head coach Bobby Hauck/ by Brooks Nuanez

Fouch has been an understudy to Robby Hauck and Gavin Robertson, Bobby Hauck’s starting safety pair since he came back in 2018.

“You look at Gavin and it doesn’t surprise you when he comes at somebody, but I think the most admirable part about Robby’s game is that he’s pretty much always one of the smallest guys on the field and he’s also the most fearless guy on the field and he will hit anybody,” Fouch said. “And we all look up to that and I know I want to play like that.”

The third part of Montana’s developmental approach is relentless competition. At other schools, Fouch might have been a written-in-pen starter after a solid redshirt freshman season in 2019 that saw him play in all 14 games with 21 tackles and two interceptions.

At Montana, Fouch had to beat out former Oregon State starter TraJon Cotton, one of three FBS dropdown defensive backs the Grizzlies brought in.

Bobby Hauck relishes competition. More than that, he recognizes its value as a coaching tool. At Montana, your spot on the depth chart is just a suggestion on any given day. A starter could find himself practicing with the third-string, a freshman with the first team.

Montana defensive back Trajon Cotton/ contributed

With the 2021 Griz, at least so far, that attitude seems to have created exactly what Hauck wants. All that competition has turned into impressive depth at most positions on the field — including nickel, where Fouch could lose his spot to Cotton in a snap.

“I was always trying to be confident but also don’t want to be complacent,” Fouch said. “We got a lot of really talented guys in the safeties group, so I just always want to continue to work hard and get better every day. … It’s intimidating when those guys come in from FBS schools. So it just makes me work harder.”

Coach Hauck himself couldn’t have devised an answer that fits the coach’s philosophy better.

It’s not a particularly complicated approach to development. Work hard. Learn from older players. Compete every day. But the Grizzlies under Hauck have proven that they follow the blueprint better than just about any other program in the country.

“I think I’m playing my best football right now,” Fouch said. “I worked hard in the weight room in the summer, I think I got a lot stronger. I think I got faster, so I’m excited to see what I can do.”

Montana safety David Koppang (9) in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

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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