Game Day

Flowers flirting with reputation as one of the great Griz kick returners


Bobby Hauck knew right away. At a spring practice in 2018, his first year back at Montana, he saw redshirt freshman Malik Flowers catch a pass and turn upfield.

Hauck turned to assistant coach Shann Schillinger.

That’s our kick returner.

“He saw the way he caught it and the way he hit it, caught a pass and he got north and south,” Schillinger recalled. “He said, that’s our guy, and he has not been wrong since then. It’s been a great role for Malik.”

It’s the sort of story that validates Hauck’s almost mystical reputation as a special teams coach. Three years later, Flowers is on pace to become the greatest kick returner in Big Sky Conference history. With scores in consecutive weeks against Cal Poly and Eastern Washington earlier this season, the redshirt junior now has five touchdown returns, one behind Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed for the all-time FCS record.

As of the Sacramento State game, his career mark of 29.4 yards per kick return is just a tick behind the all-time Big Sky record mark of 30.0, held by Eastern Washington’s Lamont Brightful. It’s about two yards better than the Montana record of 27.6 held by Marc Mariani, who went on to make a Pro Bowl as a returner for the Tennessee Titans. Flowers’ 879 kick return yards in 2019 is also a school record.

In his 10 years as Montana head coach, Hauck’s Grizzlies have averaged more yards on kick returns than their opponents every single year.

In 2021, Montana is averaging 29.3 yards per kick return. The Grizzlies’ opponents are at 14.6. On punt returns, the advantage is 14.1 to 3.0.

That’s the result of plenty of hard work and dedication, painstaking hours of looking at film for small weaknesses. Players from the beginning of Hauck’s time at Montana to the present remember the special teams periods at every practice.

“Based on what the coaches found and what we needed to work on, that was what we did,” said Levander Segars, who had 1,441 yards and three touchdowns on punt returns in his Montana career, which ended in 2004. Both marks are school records. “We definitely took our time so everybody knew their position and knew their role and knew their assignments, and we just executed.”

But to the untrained observer looking at the stats and watching the most chaotic play in football resolve into order as Flowers slices through a crease, as clean as if Hauck moved the pieces on a chessboard, it’s almost indistinguishable from magic.

“It was perfect, from me catching it, everything just opened perfectly,” Flowers said, flashing a wide smile in a press conference after his 95-yard kick-return touchdown against Cal Poly. “It couldn’t have been blocked any better. The guys up front did their thing. (Gabe) Sulser’s the off returner, he made the hole for me and I just hit it how I have all day in practice.”

Flowers is the latest in a long line of talented, prolific returners for the Grizzlies since the turn of the century, particularly under Hauck — Segars, Jefferson Heidelberger, Tuff Harris, Mariani, Jabin Sambrano, Jerry Louie-McGee – all rank among the best in Big Sky Conference history.

The same qualities that Hauck noticed in 2018 — acceleration, decisiveness, pure top-end speed — are what make Flowers so dangerous.

His returns should have sound effects tagged onto them, the muscled-up whoosh of a high-end sports car. He’s 6-2 and 200 pounds, a high school hurdles champion and 3-star football recruit coming out of Fontana, California in 2017.

If the tiniest gap opens up in the shifting confusion of a kick return — and given Hauck’s scheming, it usually does — Flowers accelerates through it like a Lamborghini smoothly shifting up through the gears.

Montana’s Malik Flowers is swarmed by Eastern Washington’s players during the Grizzlies’ loss in Cheney earlier this season/By Jason Bacaj

One week after the Cal Poly touchdown, he backpedaled to catch an Eastern Washington kickoff on the 1-yard line, started off going right, half-hurdled a fallen Eagle in the hole without losing a step, immediately cut left and outraced everyone for a 99-yard fourth-quarter score.

“Malik Flowers is just different,” the broadcasters marveled on ESPN2.

Flowers is a lock to be an all-Big Sky kick returner for the third time in three years since moving into that role. He’s also finally starting to break out at wide receiver, his original position.

With 10 catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns, he’s already bettered his marks in all three categories from his previous two years combined. He had his first 100-yard receiving game and first two receiving touchdowns against Western Illinois in a game in which he also returned two kicks for 50 yards, a relatively pedestrian game on special teams (for him).

At 19.1 yards per catch, he’s helping Montana fill the role of deep threat left vacant when Samori Toure transferred to Nebraska.

Montana’s Malik Flowers runs by a Western Illinois defender for one of his two receiving touchdowns in the Grizzlies’ win over the Leathernecks on Sept. 11 in Missoula/By Blake Hempstead

The Grizzlies’ great returners have tended to also be great receivers. Mariani is the school record holder in receiving touchdowns, Louie-McGee in receptions. Mariani is second in school history in receiving yards, with Louie-McGee, Heidelberger, Sambrano and Segars all in the top 30.

That’s not typical. The list of the NFL’s great returners is littered with players — Devin Hester, Dante Hall, Josh Cribbs — who couldn’t consistently translate their gifts to offense.

It’s baffling to see players who are so fast, who make five defenders miss and dance into the end zone, look so average when they’re not on special teams. At Montana, Flowers lived that conundrum for two years, tantalizing fans who wanted to see more from the special teams standout.

Now, they’re getting it.

“It’s been fun to see Malik getting more involved on the offensive side of it as well,” Schillinger said. “Any time you’re a playmaker, you get the ball in your hands, I think guys get excited for that.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Attributed. All Rights Reserved.

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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