There’s no question Montana linebacker Dante Olson had a dominant, historical season.
Despite the Grizzlies’ struggles, Olson thrived, setting a new Montana record and leading the nation with 151 total tackles in just 11 games, 13.7 per contest. The total led the Big Sky Conference by 50 stops and broke UM’s former single-season record by 21 tackles.
Montana’s season is over. But Olson still has the chance to make some more Montana history as a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, given annually to the Defensive Player of the Year in FCS.
In the 23-year history of the award, a Montana player has only won once before — defensive end Kroy Biermann in 2007. Defensive end Tyrone Holmes won the FCS Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015, the one and only season the award presented by STATS FCS was not named for former Grambling State and Kansas City Chief standout defensive end Buck Buchanan.
Olson staked his claim for the award early in the season when he was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week in each of the first two weeks of the season and earned FCS National Player of the Week honors after leading Montana to a 26-23 win over No. 13 Northern Iowa to open the 2018 season. Olson added another Big Sky weekly award after recording 24 tackles in Week 5 at Cal Poly, giving him three conference Player of the Week Awards in the first five weeks of the season.
By the time Olson was officially added to the watch list for the Buchanan Award on October 18 — ironically, the week after his first single-digit tackle game of the season — he was already up to 106 tackles in just seven games, and was widely considered a frontrunner for the award.
But Olson’s chances at winning the Buchanan Award might not be as high as people think when they hear the phrase “led the country in tackles.” After all, the job of a defensive player is to tackle the guys on the offense, and if you were the best in the country at that, you must have been the best in the country period, right?
Not so fast. In the past 10 years, the Buck has gone to the country’s leading tackler just once, when Norfolk State linebacker Deon King won the award in 2015 by averaging 14.8 total tackles per game. And that season, the Buck was not handed out by STATS FCS because of a naming rights issue.
Big tackle numbers have been overlooked by the award voters for years, as it seems they prefer to reward other stats. In the last decade, the Buck has been given to a player that averaged double-digit tackles per game just three times — King, New Hampshire’s Matt Evans in 2011 (13.8 tackles per game), and Eastern Washington’s J.C. Sherritt in 2010 (11.7)
On the other hand, it’s gone to a player with double-digit sacks six times in those 10 years.
A DECADE OF TACKLE LEADERS
Olson can’t match the dominant sack numbers of the defensive linemen that the award voters have seemed to like in recent years. He has six sacks and 11 tackles for loss this year, more sacks than King, Evans or Sherritt had in their winning years but behind every other player on the list.
That’s bad news for Olson, especially in a year when there were some big stats put up by pass rushers. Sam Houston State’s Derick Roberson had 15 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. Furman freshman Adrian Hope had nearly identical stats with 15 sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. Western Illinois’s Pete Swenson had 14.5 sacks and 24.5 TFLs, leading the country in the latter.
There are some historical positives for Olson. There is precedent for a player winning the award after his team missed the playoffs. It’s happened three times in the last 10 years, including two of the last three, when King in 2015 and Northern Iowa’s Karter Schult in 2016 won despite playing on losing teams.
Arthur Moats in 2009 was the other, taking the award despite playing on a 6-5 James Madison team that missed the FCS playoffs.
Even missing out on the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, which was given to EWU nose tackle Jay-Tee Tiuli on Monday, isn’t a death knell for Olson’s chances.
King and Holmes in 2015 and Evans in 2011, along with Montana State’s Caleb Schreibeis in 2012 (ironically, he lost the conference DPOY award to teammate Jody Owens) weren’t recognized by the coaches in their respective conferences before going on to win the national award. In 2013, Montana State’s Brad Daly shared the Big Sky award with Cal Poly defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz.
In 2015, Southern Utah’s James Cowser was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year but Holmes claimed the FCS Defensive Player of the Year award in a year when all three finalists for the STATS FCS award hailed from the Big Sky. Portland State safety Patrick Onwuasor joined Cowser and Holmes as the three finalists. In 2003, MSU’s Kane Ioane won the Big Sky Defensive MVP but Idaho State defensive end Jared Allen won the Buck.
Every other Buck winner in the last 10 years was the Defensive Player of the Year in their conference.
What will also hurt Olson is that Southeast Missouri State’s Zach Hall came on strong, finishing with 150 tackles on the season, just one less than the Montana linebacker.
The closest precedent for a potential Olson win was King winning the non-accredited award in 2015. Like Olson, he led the country in tackles, played for a mediocre team, and didn’t win Defensive Player of the Year in his own conference.
King had 163 tackles that year to Olson’s 151 this season, but Olson matched him in tackles for loss (11 for each) and has him beat in sacks (six to three) and takeaways (five for Olson, just two for King that year) while playing in a stronger conference for a team with more national recognition.
It’s not unprecedented for a player that was not the Big Sky MVP wins the Buck. Biermann, Sherritt, Daly and Eastern Washington’s Greg Peach (2008) each won the Big Sky MVP before claiming the Buck. But Allen, Schreibeis and Holmes all did not win league MVP honors but did claim the national award.
If Olson claims the Buck Buchanan Award, he will fortify one trend while bucking another.