Montana Made

MONTANA MADE: The 53 Treasure State natives for the Montana Grizzlies

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The 120th rendition of the fiercest rivalry in college football will once again highlight some of the best football players who grew up in the Treasure State. Those Montana-made products will certainly have an influence on a game with serious playoff ramifications.

A total of 91 in-state products (including Montana junior safety Robby Hauck, who was born in Missoula but prepped in Las Vegas and San Diego) will play in Saturday’s rivalry showdown. A total of 53 players from the No. 7 Grizzlies hail from in-state, the most since 2005. And No. 3 Montana State’s roster features 38 in-state products entering the game on Saturday in Missoula.

The upcoming rivalry game has postseason ramifications for the second year in a row, marking the first time since 2014 that is the case. In 2019, Montana State routed Montana as the then-No. 8 Bobcats blasted the No. 3 Griz 48-14 in Bozeman. Both teams earned playoff seeds and first-round byes; UM advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2019 FCS Playoffs and MSU advanced to the semifinals that season, marking the first run to the Final Four for the Bobcats since 1984.

The Bobcats enter the game with a 9-1 record, including a 7-0 mark in Big Sky Conference play. MSU is certainly into the playoffs for the third straight year and the seventh time since 2010. A victory could give Montana State at least a share of its first league title since 2012. A loss and MSU could still get a Top 8 seed and a bye.

Montana enters the game on a four-game winning streak to get to 5-2 in league play and 8-2 overall. Montana is almost certainly into the playoffs for the second year in a row and the 23rd time since 1993, win or lose. A win would likely propel UM to a playoff seed and a first-round bye.

The Bobcats have won four straight games against the Griz for the first time since Sonny Holland roamed the sideline as head coach at his alma mater – MSU won six straight between 1972 and 1977 under Holland, who went 10-1 against UM between his time as a coach and a player.

During the Big Sky Conference era beginning in 1963, Montana State won the first six rivalry games against Montana and 12 of the first 15. Montana won in 1978 and again in 1981 and 1982 before MSU ripped off its most recent three-game winning streak until the current one between 1983 and 1985.

In 1986, Montana won 59-28 in Missoula, starting an era of domination that reached 16 consecutive victories during a stretch that became known as simply: “The Streak.”

Since Montana State won in Missoula 10-7 in Missoula in 2002, the rivalry is dead even with nine wins on each side. MSU has won four of its last five in Missoula while Montana had four straight wins in Bozeman between 2007 and 2015.

Montana vs Montana State in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

When Bobby Hauck first took over at Montana leading up to the 2018 season, the Griz roster boasted 29 in-state players. Now UM has more than 50 for the first time since Hauck’s third season of his first stint at UM.

Montana State had one of its highest number of in-state products in former head coach Jeff Choate’s four years in 2019 with 46. The 2016 Bobcats had 52 Montana kids while the 2017 team had 46 and the 2018 team featured 45.

This year’s Bobcat team has four offensive starters and four defensive starters from Montana. A total of 15 Montanans dot the Bobcats’ two-deep, a number that could increase by a couple depending on how much time sophomore running back Lane Sumner and freshman quarterback Tommy Mellott get on Saturday.

Depending on who starts at quarterback for Montana — redshirt freshman Kris Brown from Bozeman was the starter for an enitre month while senior Cam Humphrey came back from an injury — the Griz have as many as four starters on offense and four starters on defense (including Robby Hauck) who claim Montana roots. Six more in-state products, all on defense, appear on the two-deep. And Montana has an in-state product at punter.

Between the two rosters combined, a total of 57 players (31 for UM, 26 for MSU) played Class AA football in high school. A total of 17 players played in Class A, including nine for the ‘Cats. A total of 11 players cut their teeth in the Class B ranks, including eight who play for Montana. And a total of six players prepped in the Class C ranks, including four for the Griz.

Bozeman and Missoula are the two most represented Montana towns. A total of 15 players from Bozeman, all who went to Bozeman Senior High (Gallatin High opened two years ago), will be a part of Saturday’s rivalry, including 10 former Hawks who are now Bobcats.

A total of 14 Missoula natives will be a part of the game, including 11 who stayed home to play for the Grizzlies. Sentinel is the most well-represented with eight alums, including six Griz, as part of the action. Three former Big Sky players, all Grizzlies, will play and three from Loyola, two Bobcats and one Griz, are part of the tally.

Billings has 12 players in the game, including four that went to West, three that went to Senior, three that went to Central and two that went to Skyview. Three former Golden Bears are now Bobcats and a fourth is a Griz while two of the three former Senior Broncs play for Montana. MSU has two Central products while both Skyview alums are Bobcats.

Helena has nine players in the game, including six who play at Montana. All three Bobcats are former Bengals while all four Capital products play for the Grizzlies.

All three Great Falls players – one from each C.M.Russell, Great Falls High and GF Central — play for Montana. There are six players from Kalispell, each Glacier High alums, including four that play for the Griz.

And Butte has six players in the rivalry, including four for Montana and three that are former Butte High Bulldogs. MSU has one each from Butte Central and Butte High.

Dillon (3) and Whitefish (2) are the only Class A schools with multiple representatives. Red Lodge and Huntley Project have one each on Cat and Griz rosters.

A total of 29 Montana towns are represented with players from Laurel, Lewistown, Polson, Havre, Colstrip, Hamilton, Anaconda, Townsend, Whitehall, Fairfield, Sunburst, Valier, Melstone and Phillipsburg all making up the fabric of this historic game.

Here’s a look the 53 Montana products on the UM roster headed into the 120th rendition of the fierce rivalry in Missoula on Saturday afternoon.

THE STARS

Montana captain senior linebacker Jace Lewis/by Brooks Nuanez

Jace Lewis, middle linebacker, senior, Townsend — Wearing Montana’s hallowed No. 37 legacy jersey comes with a heavy burden no matter what Montana-raised player dons the jersey. This year, the task carried even more weight.

Coming out of the pandemic-influenced canceled season, Jesse Sims had not yet passed on the number. The former team captain from Stevensville established a reputation as a selfless leader and a gentle giant when he wasn’t wreaking havoc on the interior of Montana’s defensive line.

That in itself would mean carrying the jersey would be a tall task. When Sims passed away in a tragic accident last spring, the burden became one of a kind. Lewis, who was originally a walk-on out of Broadwater County High in Townsend, has more than shouldered the expectation.

Last week against Northern Arizona, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound captain had one of the best games of his senior season. He piled up 10 tackles, including four tackles for loss and a pair of sacks as UM gave up 154 yards of offense in a 30-3 win, their first in Flagstaff in a decade.

This season, Lewis has rolled up 75 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He ranks among the Big Sky leaders in the first two categories.

He has also been the inspirational leader of a Griz defense that ranks among the nation’s best in rushing and scoring defense.

Montana defensive end Patrick O’Connell (58) in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

Patrick O’Connell, outside linebacker, junior, Kalispell Glacier – In his first full-time season playing on the edge, O’Connell flashed in 2019, leading Montana in sacks with 6.5.

This season, the man they call Paddy OC has been a revelation. The former walk-on has been one of the breakout stars in the Big Sky and the FCS.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder had an outburst in Montana’s season-opening 13-7 win over No. 20 Washington, rolling up 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. That ignited a season that has helped him emerge as one of the leading candidates for the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and the Buck Buchanan Award.

O’Connell enters Saturday with 18 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, both among the best totals in the Big Sky. He is also Montana’s second-leading tackler with 80 stops, one of the top 10 marks in the league and an exceptional total for a player that mostly plays on the edge.

Montana linebacker Marcus Welnel (now 10) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

Marcus Welnel, linebacker, junior, Helena Capital — Lewis was a first-team All-Big Sky performer in 2019. O’Connell was turning into as a significant force in the Big Sky. It’s been the emergence of Welnel, a largely unknown commodity before this season, that has helped Montana re-establish itself as Linebacker U of the conference.

Welnel announced his presence against UW, rolling up 12 tackles, a sack and the game-sealing interception on the last offensive possession of the game for the Dawgs.

He’s kept on balling and ball-hawking. He has 73 tackles, nine tackles for loss and five sacks, while snaring three interceptions, the most by a linebacker in the Big Sky. Saturday marks his first rivalry game start.

Montana wide receiver Mitch Roberts (80) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

Mitch Roberts, wide receiver, junior, Missoula Sentinel – The local product has quietly developed into one of the steadiest pass catchers on the Griz and in the league. The former high school quarterback leads Montana with 41 catches for 581 yards.

The end-zone has eluded Roberts as he has become the master of the long catch to get the Griz into the red-zone only to see a teammate finish off the drive. He had five catches into the red-zone in 2019 during a sophomore campaign that saw him catch 37 passes for 420 yards but score just once. This season, he has caught one touchdown as well but his steadiness for an otherwise bland, inconsistent Griz offense has been a key factor.

Montana tackle Dylan Cook (64) in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

Dylan Cook, offensive tackle, senior, Butte — The man from the Mining City is one of the great stories in this rivalry game.

In the fall of 2015, Cook threw for 3,124 yards and 30 touchdowns for Butte High, earning Class AA all-state honors for former Bobcat Arie Grey’s Bulldogs. That led him to Montana State Northern, where he spent two seasons. In 2017 as a redshirt freshman, he threw for 181 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 177 yards.

In 2018, the 6-foot-6, now 305-pounder transferred to Montana…and transitioned from quarterback to offensive tackle.

“I know when this guy came here, I’m sure he was thinking tight end or defensive end but I looked that that guy and said, ‘that’s a tackle,'” Bobby Hauck said with a chuckle earlier this season.

Hauck was right. By 2019, Cook was the Grizzlies’ starting right tackle. He started 11 games that season and the first eight of this season before suffering a knee ding that cost him the last two games. He is expected to start on Saturday.

Robby Hauck, safety, junior, Missoula

Montana safety Robby Hauck (17) in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

The hard-hitting, fast-playing son of Montana’s head coach plays similarly to the way his uncle, Tim Hauck, played for the Griz in the late 1980s on the way to a 13-years NFL career.

Robby Hauck is only 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds but he flies around and smacks people at an all-league level. Hauck played his high school years in Vegas and San Diego while Bobby was finishing his tenure as the head coach at UNLV and during three years as the special teams coordinator at San Diego State.

But Robby Hauck still lists his hometown as Missoula. His origin point might be up for debate but his attitude and pride in the Montana program certainly fit the bill of a native. Hauck is Montana’s leading tackler with 102 stops, the third-best total in the Big Sky.

THE STARTERS

Garrett Graves, safety, sophomore, Eureka — Graves came to Montana as a raw prospect with a ton of potential mostly because of his Class B roots and small-town toughness. He led Lincoln County High to two state football championships and also was the Class B state champion in wrestling at 182 pounds.

He threw 42 touchdowns his senior season of high school so UM started him at quarterback. He was Montana’s Scout Team Player of the Year offensively in 2018. By 2019, he was playing spot snaps as a wide receiver while also making a name for himself on special teams.

His resounding hit in UM’s 34-17 win over Eastern Washington while covering a punt altered the narrative of his career. Soon after, he was playing safety. And when senior safety Gavin Robertson fell ill earlier this year, Graves burst into the starting lineup.

He started for a month, rolling up 30 of his 35 tackles during that span. He hasn’t played the last three weeks as much with Robertson back in the lineup.

Montana running back Junior Bergen (5)/by Blake Hempstead

Junior Bergen, running back/wide receiver, freshman, Billings Senior — Two years ago, Bergen was one of the best wide receivers in Class AA football. Last fall, he was quarterbacking the Broncs to the semifinals of the prep playoffs.

Less than a year ago, he was one of the primary targets in the in-state recruiting battle. He signed with Montana State in February only to see head coach Jeff Choate bolt for an assistant position at Texas. Bergen used the little-known loophole in NCAA rules to get released from his National Letter of Intent. He then signed with Montana.

Many wondered if he might push for playing time as a true freshman. But no one expected it to be at running back. And NO ONE expected Bergen to be Montana’s leading rusher entering last week at Northern Arizona.

Fellow freshman Xavier Harris returned to the lineup last week and rushed for 70 yards, giving him 481 yards this season, more than Bergen’s 439 yards. But the effort from a player who has not ever played running back to average 4.3 yards per carry and score three of UM’s 14 rushing touchdowns has been both surprising and impressive.

Gabe Sulser, wide receiver/returner, junior, Billings Senior — Sulser could’ve been the most famous man in Montana if things had gone his way this season. Instead, his Griz career is flying by without him having much of a chance to contribute.

Montana wide receiver Gabe Sulser (7) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

Sulser, a former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year and the rare true freshman to get signaled out by Hauck before his rookie season, scored touchdowns on three of his first five touches as a Griz, each one of more than 55 yards.

But his first two years were marred by injury as he finished with 18 catches for 196 yards and eight carries for 158 yards those first two seasons combined. In the spring, Sulser hauled in eight catches for 145 yards a pair of scores, appearing like he would break out as a big-time weapon in the Griz offense this fall.

During Montana’s first four games, Sulser managed just nine catches for 73 yards while averaging 12 yards per punt return. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in UM’s 34-28 loss at Eastern Washington.

Montana has missed Sulser most on special teams. Keelan White, Aaron Fontes and Robby Hauck have all taken turns trying to field punts for the Grizzlies.

Kris Brown, quarterback, redshirt freshman, Bozeman — Brown hails from Bozeman when it comes to high school but he actually grew up in Covina, California. His older brother, Kamden Brown, came to Montana State as a preferred walk-on and played parts of three seasons for the Bobcats. The Brown family moved to the Gallatin Valley at that time.

Montana freshman quarterback Kris Brown/ by Jason Bacaj

During his time with the Hawks, Brown threw for 5,621 yards and 44 touchdowns while rushing for nearly 1,000. He was a Class AA first-team all-state selection as a senior yet did not receive a scholarship offer from MSU.


Instead, Montana offered the strong-armed, athletic 6-foot-4, 220-pound signal caller. Brown was thrust into the starting lineup following the EWU loss when Humphrey went down with an injury.

Brown threw for 241 yards and a touchdown in a 31-14 win over Dixie State, 188 yards in a 28-21 loss against Sac State; 256 yards and a score in a 34-14 win over Idaho and 186 yards plus a score in a 20-19 win over Southern Utah. He has played sparingly since. Humphrey is expected to start against Montana State.

Brian Buschini, punter, redshirt freshman, Helena Capital — The former walk-on has turned himself into one of the top special teams weapons in the league and the country.

Buschini has been training with Mike McCabe, who owns a company called One On One Kicking and coaches over 20 NFL punters, including L.A. Rams All-Pro Johnny Hekker. He has learned the hanging sky ball, the right-to-left curler, the skittering end-over-end roller and the one named after…a fruit? Yes, the watermelon punt is also part of Buschini’s arsenal.

The first-year starter is averaging 46.5 yards per punt, the best in the Big Sky, and Montana is one of the top teams in the country in punting and net punting averages. He has 21 punts over 50 yards and has pinned opponents inside the 20 a total of 21 times, both league highs as well.

HometownNumber of ‘CatsNumber of Griz
Class AA towns (65)
Missoula (14, including 3 at Loyola)3 11
Bozeman (15)105
Billings (12, including 3 at Central)85
Kalispell (6)24
Helena (9)36
Great Falls (3 including 1 at Central)03
Butte (6, including 2 at at Central)24
Class A towns (17)
Dillon 30
Laurel10
Lewistown10
Polson01
Whitefish02
Havre01
Colstrip10
Hamilton01
Anaconda01
Class B towns
Red Lodge11
Huntley Project11
Townsend01
Eureka01
Loyola (Missoula) 12
Whitehall 01
Fairfield 01
Class C towns (6)
Sunburst10
Valier01
Savage01
Melstone10
Great Falls Central01
Phillipsburg 01


THE CONTRIBUTORS  

Braxton Hill, linebacker, sophomore, Anaconda — The former grayshirt was one of the best all-around athletes in Montana during his time starring for the Copperheads.

Montana linebacker Braxton Hill (35) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

He finished his career as the all-time leading scorer in Anaconda basketball history, man or woman, with 1,924 points. He broke a record held for decades by the late Wayne Estes, one of Montana’s most prominent homegrown products and a former draft pick by the Lakers before a freak accident ended his life way too early.

Hill was also a two-way star for the football team and played through a torn shoulder for all of his senior year. That injury caused him to greyshirt in 2018. By 2019, he was carving out a roll on special teams.

This season, he has been solid in the snaps he gets behind Lewis and Welnel. He has 16 tackles 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, so far during his sophomore year.

Levi Janacaro, linebacker, sophomore, Missoula Big Sky — The former Western AA Offensive MVP while playing quarterback at Big Sky has bounced around his first few years with the Griz.

But the hulking, physically mature bruiser has found a home at outside linebacker and as a special teams ace.

Janacaro is a front-runner for an all-conference spot as a special teams player this season. He has been one of the most aggressive, hard-hitting players in the league covering kicks and punts. Against Cal Poly, he blocked a punt and fell on it in the end-zone for his first college touchdown, a cool moment for a player who rushed for 29 touchdowns and accounted for 40 total scores his senior year leading the Eagles.

Janacaro has 15 tackles and a sack this season.

Ryan Simpson, wide receiver, redshirt freshman, Bozeman — The former standout basketball player still looks the part of a small forward with his long, lanky 6-foot-6 frame. But he’s contributed as a receiver this year as well.

He has 13 catches for 164 yards this season, including 10 catches for 137 yards over the last month.

David Koppang, safety, sophomore, Missoula Loyola — Koppang is another local product who is making his way on kick teams and as a brief contributor when called upon in the safety rotation. The former mutli-sport athlete has three special teams tackles and has contributed in other ways for one of the top special teams units in the country.

Montana linebacker Levi Janacaro (36) and David Koppang (9) celebrates a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown vs. Cal Poly in 2021/by Blake Hempstead

Henry Nuce, defensive line, freshman, Kalispell Glacier — Nuce grew up in Michigan and spent the first part of his high school career in Maine.

When he moved to Montana, he started training with former Montana strength coach Mike Gerber. That helped him land on UM’s recruiting radar. After a first-team All-State season as a senior playing for former Griz quarterback Grady Bennett at Glacier in the fall of 2019, Nuce earned a spot on the Griz.

Earlier this fall, Nuce made his first start with senior end Joe Babros out with an injury and senior end Justin Belknap only partially available because of illness. This season, he has nine tackles and a tackle for loss.

Tyler Flink, linebacker, sophomore, Missoula Big Sky — Flink, who like the Janacaro brothers learned the element of toughness it takes to play Division I from former Griz and current Big Sky coach Matt Johnson, has used that grit to contribute in a variety of ways this season.

He loves to hit and he loves to throw his body around particularly on special teams. He was in on a tackle of a punt fake against Northern Colorado and he has 10 tackles and a tackle for loss all told this season.

Jaxon Lee, safety, freshman, Phillipsburg/Missoula — Lee was as dominant a Class C player as any in recent years for the Flint Creek (Drummond-Phillipsburg co-op) Trojans. He was the go-to offensive weapon and snared 10 interceptions as a junior to help the squad to its second straight state championship.

In 2019, he transferred to Sentinel, where he was an all-state selection on offense and as a kick returner for a team that advanced to the state semifinals. He moved to safety his first season at Montana and is now a No. 2 on the depth chart.

Hauck has been so durable, he hardly comes off the field. So Lee has just one tackle this season.

Trevin Gradney, cornerback, redshirt freshman, Billings West — The son of former Montana State defensive back Joe Gradney is the lone Golden Bear on the Griz roster.

The former captain of West’s 2018 state title team has come on as of late, making several noticeable plays on special teams and a few reps at Montana’s stacked cornerback spots as well.

Colter Janacaro, running back, freshman, Missoula Big Sky  — Like his older brother, Janacaro was a Wildcat type quarterback for the Eagles coming up in the Garden City. He threw for 1,000 and ran for 1,000 yards as a senior.

Because of Montana’s running back injury debacle, Janacaro has gotten carries earlier than most expected. He has nine rushing attempts and 29 yards in four games. The next snap he plays will eliminate him from taking a red shirt this season.

Danny Burton, wide receiver, senior, Helena Capital — Burton, the only other senior receiver other than standout Samuel Akem on the UM roster, caught his first pass since 2017 when he hauled in a 14-yard reception earlier this season against Dixie State.

IN-STATE GRIZZLIES

Matt Rensvold, tight end, junior, Polson

Trevor Welnel, offensive line, redshirt sophomore, Helena Capital

Gerrit Bloemendaal, offensive line, sophomore, Great Falls C.M. Russell

Noah Ambuehl, offensive line, redshirt freshman, Great Falls Central

Colten Curry, tight end, sophomore, Valier

Jake Olson, tight end, freshman, Butte

Drew Deck, wide receiver, freshman, Kalispell Glacier

Gabe Longin, safety, freshman, Great Falls High

Camden Capser, kicker, freshman, Billings Central

Ryder Meyer, safety, freshman, Fairfield

Ryan Arnston, running back, junior, Helena

Padraig Lang, safety, freshman, Bozeman

Brady Lang, wide receiver, freshman, Bozeman

Tanner Huff, wide receiver, freshman, Butte

T.J. Rausch, safety, freshman, Missoula Sentinel

Geno Leonard, linebacker, freshman, Missoula Sentinel

Drew Turner, running back, sophomore, Kalispell Glacier

Carson Rostad, linebacker, freshman, Hamilton

Asher Croy, linebacker, freshman, Bozeman

Soren Syvrud, linebacker, freshman, Missoula Sentinel

Jace Klucewich, safety, freshman, Missoula Sentinel

Ryan Tirrell, linebacker, redshirt freshman, Missoula Loyola

Kellen Detrick, defensive end, freshman, Havre

Zac Evans, defensive line, freshman, Helena

Corby Mann, defensive end, freshman, Red Lodge

Dillon Botner, offensive line, redshirt freshman, Whitefish

Carver Gilman, kicker/punter, redshirt freshman, Whitefish

Matt Simkins, tight end, freshman, Butte Central

Sloan McPherson, defensive line, freshman, Savage

Dylan Smith, defensive line, freshman, Whitehall

Journey Grimsrud, defensive line, freshman, Huntley Project

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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