Ty Gregorak has had no shortage of great linebackers in his 12 seasons at Montana.
The longtime Montana assistant and third-year Grizzly defensive coordinator has coached 26 all-conference linebackers, including 2011 Big Sky Conference Defensive Most Valuable Player in Caleb McSurdy. Two seasons ago, he coached a group that included current Miami Dolphin Jordan Tripp, current Seattle Seahawk Brock Coyle and former CFL linebacker John Kanongataa. In other words, he knows a good group when he sees one.
Gregorak thinks his current group can stack up with any in the country.
“As a group, I don’t think you could find a finer core,” Gregorak said. “I think all three of them are pretty special players in this league. I watch the league. I’m a fan. I’m a football fan. I watch opponent film every week. I watch the ‘backers every week and what they are doing. I know there’s some good ones in this league. I do think we have pretty special ones at Montana. As a core, it has to be one of the finer ones at our level.”
The group returns in tact for their senior years after a 2014 that saw all three earn All-Big Sky honors. Outside linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren, the swiftest hitter of the group, piled up 122 tackles and five tackles for loss in earning second-team all-conference honors. Jeremiah Kose, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound thumper who roams in the middle, piled up 117 tackles and nine tackles for loss in earning third-team All-Big Sky accolades. Herbert Gamboa, a converted safety who is the speed merchant of the group, piled up 107 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in earning honorable mention all-league recognition.
“I feel like we can be the best in the Big Sky,” Kose said on the first Saturday of Montana’s fall camp. “As long as we stay humble and confident at the same time and we do the right things, we could be the best in the Big Sky.”
The admiration for the group stretches beyond Washington-Grizzly Stadium and beyond the borders of Missoula. In Park City last month, the Big Sky released its preseason all-league team. Van Ackeren was one of two outside linebackers named to the list along with Idaho State sophomore Mario Jenkins and Kose was one of two inside linebackers picked along with Sac State senior Darnell Sankey.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Van Ackeren, a Bellevue, Washington native, said earlier this month. “It’s nice to get some recognition but until the season is over and the accolades come out, it’s nothing but nice words.
“When you get those preseason things, it puts pressure on you to make sure you live up to the hype and you don’t disappoint. At the end of the season, if you get those same awards, you prove everyone that believed in you and what you can do right.”
The defensive narrative entering the 2015 season certainly hinges on the performance of the linebackers. But the group and the defensive unit have already experienced a hiccup. Days before fall camp began, Gamboa was arrested on disorderly conduct charges after his involvement in a fight at a house party.
“We’ve already jacked it all up before the season even started so that was a major wakeup call,” Gregorak said. “Herbert being away from the team, not being able to participate in practice, that’s a huge loss. But the guy behind him who is his best friend on the team in Conner Lebsock is going to be a fifth-year senior who’s worked his tail off to get this opportunity.”
The notion of Montana’s defense again being dominant — the Griz led the league in scoring defense, allowing 21 points per game — has been a common talking point all off-season around the league. But Gregorak points to the fact that, while UM returns three all-conference linebackers, the Griz must replace Big Sky Defensive MVP Zack Wagenmann, first-team All-Big Sky defensive tackle Tonga Takai, All-America safety Matt Hermanson and second-team All-Big Sky cornerback Josh Dennard, among others.
“Everything looks good in the second level — everyone will praise these linebackers and we got good linebackers — but it’s nice when there’s some big ol’ butts in front of you so we will see how these guys do without that this year,” Gregorak said.
“We lost three guys up front and two guys behind us, so it’s not the same defense as last year, but we do have a lot of guys who are stepping into starting roles nicely,” Van Ackeren added. ‘They will try to do everything they can to keep that defensive tradition alive.”
The Griz are still acclimating to their third coaching staff since 2010. After three seasons at the helm, Mick Delaney retired. Montana hired Bob Stitt in December. The athletes on the offensive side of the ball have experienced a complete overhaul since Stitt’s arrival from Division II Colorado School of Mines. The defense, however, remains the same.
Stitt retained Gregorak and defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa. Gregorak coached under Bobby Hauck from 2003 until 2009, an era that saw the Griz win seven straight Big Sky titles and advanced to three FCS national title games.
“If there was one group of coaches that we needed to stay more than anything, Coach Ty was the head of it,” Van Ackeren said. “He was in the running for the head coaching job and we were voting for him because we know him, we know what Coach Ty can do and we were rooting for him. Having Coach Ty around and having our defense stay the same is unbelievably helpful. Considering this is our last go, it makes all the difference for us.”
Photos Courtesy of University of Montana Athletics. All Rights Reserved.