Game Day

Robertson’s illness providing opportunity for safeties Graves, Koppang

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Garrett Graves came to Montana as a quarterback. He switched to wide receiver for a while. He first started getting noticed on special teams.

Now, four years after his first fall as a Grizzly, it seems like he’s found his home in the defensive backfield.

“I’ve played in a lot of positions, and so getting on the defensive side of the ball is exciting for me,” Graves said. “I’m glad that I’m out there hitting and tackling and I think the coaches knew best when they moved me there.”

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When Graves came to Montana in the fall of 2018, the Grizzlies were facing a bit of a crisis at safety.

Justin Strong, Mick Delaney and Korey Alexander had all graduated, leaving Bobby Hauck, in his first year back, with just three returners at the position, one of whom hadn’t played the year before — not great considering Griz defensive coordinator Kent Baer was implementing a 3-3-5 defense that required depth at defensive back.

“That’s one of those things, you’ve got to make some depth if you don’t have any,” safeties coach Shann Schillinger told Skyline Sports at the time. “I think the guys we’ve got have done a good job so far up to this point, and we’ll see how it goes as spring progresses.”

What the Grizzlies did have that spring were two safety transfers from Arizona schools. Gavin Robertson was a linebacker at Arizona who came to Montana because he wanted to play in the secondary again. Robby Hauck was a redshirt at Northern Arizona who came to Montana because, well, his dad was the new head coach.

By that fall, both were starters, and since then the safety pair of Robertson and Hauck has been one of the most consistent position groups on the Grizzlies. The two played in every game from the beginning of the 2018 season through the 2021 spring season, the vast majority of those as starters next to each other.

Robertson is a redshirt senior this year. Hauck, a redshirt junior, has another year of eligibility.

But with Robertson out the last three weeks with an illness, the Grizzlies have gotten their first chance to glimpse the next wave of talent coming through at the position. Unlike the transfers in 2018, this one is local, starting with Graves, from Eureka, and David Koppang, from Missoula Loyola.

Montana safety Garrett Graves played quarterback for Lincoln County High School.

“(Graves) has done some really good stuff for us,” Schillinger said. “Finally got an opportunity to go in and play and did some good things. We’re excited about Garrett moving forward.”

He had a team-leading 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup in his first start against Cal Poly, seven more stops against Eastern Washington, and five, plus a pass breakup, against Dixie State.

“It’s never good when you’re starting because somebody’s sick, so that’s a bummer, but we have a next-man-up mentality here,” Graves said. “Our whole depth is ready to play and that was no different at the safety position. I’ve been preparing like I was gonna start, so I’ve been ready for that.”

The redshirt sophomore grew up in Eureka and came to Montana as a raw but athletic player without much of a position. The Griz coaches got him on the field for two games and seven carries as a quarterback in 2018, when he was also the scout team’s offensive player of the year.

Graves moved to wide receiver the next year and had four catches for 24 yards, plus nine tackles and a blocked kick on special teams.

He’s once again listed as the starter at safety for the Grizzlies this weekend against Sacramento State, although Robertson has been at practice this week.

Backing up Graves on the depth chart is Koppang, who came to Montana the same year as Graves but has had a much less distinctive career path — a redshirt in 2018 and then two games with no stats in 2019. He had an interception against Central Washington in the spring season, when he also recorded his first career tackles.

David Koppang during fall practice in 2018/by Jason Bacaj

“Honestly, probably in my 30 years of coaching, he’s one of the best young men I’ve ever been around,” said Todd Hughes, who coached Koppang at Loyola. “God blessed him with some things, but some people are faster or taller, heavier or whatever. David’s earned everything that he’s got. He spent a lot of hours throwing iron in the weight room, running sprints, running to the M, so on and so forth to make him better.”

If Graves might take over for Robertson, Koppang could be the next Robby Hauck — undersized but tough as leather (he’s listed at 6-0, 190, actually bigger than Hauck’s listed 5-10, 185) and with deep ties to Montana football.

His dad Chris played for the Griz in 1992 and 1993. When David was growing up, the family had season tickets in section 104 of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, from where David remembers heckling the other team as they ran out of the tunnel and catching Twinkies thrown into the stands.

“People are saying the old Griz are back, and it’s so much easier for a kid to fall in love with this scenery and everything that’s going on,” Koppang said. “I mean, if it’s how I was when I was young, and everything is just kind of going back to what it was, it’s awesome for kids to experience that.”

Griz safety David Koppang had a dominant four-year career at Missoula Loyola/by John Neumann

It’s taken plenty of change to get the Grizzlies back to that level — except at safety. Of the 15 leading tacklers on the team in 2018, when Robby Hauck was second and Robertson eighth in that category, just two others are still on the team: Jace Lewis and R.J. Nelson, who has barely played in 2021.

But the interesting thing about college football is that even the most stalwart starters eventually move on. It’s an inevitability, and then it becomes a question of how to replace them. So far, Montana’s next generation of safeties seems to have the answer.

“You just have to work hard, and that’s all it’s about,” Koppang said. “When they call me up, I have to do my job.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

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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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