The second half of the 1980s helped the Montana Grizzlies emerge from hibernation, setting the stage for two decades of nearly unprecedented success at the Division I-AA and FCS level.
Don Read was hired in 1985. UM opened Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1986. Tim Hauck and the Grizzlies advanced to the semifinals of the Division I-AA playoffs for the first time in 1989. And by the time Read’s final season at the helm rolled around, the Griz were straight rolling.
Montana captured its first national title in 1995 in Read’s 10th and final year. That season marked the third straight of what would become 17 consecutive playoff appearances for the Griz. UM advanced to the national title game seven times and won a second crown in 2001. Last decade, Montana’s dominance had no peer despite losing four if its championship contests. The Grizzlies won 119 games between 2000 and 2009, the most in the history of Division I college football to that point. Montana won every Big Sky title that decade as part of a run of 12 straight league crowns, the second-most in college football history.
Following a heartbreaking loss in the 2009 title game to Villanova, UM’s fourth title game loss of the decade and third in six seasons under Bobby Hauck, the Griz have gone through seemingly endless turmoil on the field, in the coaching ranks and away from the gridiron, mostly in the court of public opinion.
A sexual assault scandal on the UM campus led to NCAA violations for the football team, a Department of Justice investigation, the firing of head coach Robin Pflugrad and UM athletic director and one infamous John Krakauer book.
Through it all, Montana still managed to make the playoffs five times over the recently completed decade despite operating under four different head coaches. Mick Delaney helped right the ship for three seasons after Pflugrad’s abrupt and controversial dismissal. Three seasons of Bob Stitt never managed to fulfill expectations and, ultimately, led to Hauck’s equally controversial return.
Montana’s All-Decade team from 2010 through 2019 is a collection of some of the best talent the football program has produced, particularly defensively. We considered as many as 10 linebackers alone for this list, leaving off a collection of players that would likely make All-Decade teams at every other school in the Big Sky Conference, first-team all-league selections like J.P. Kanongata’a, Herbert Gamboa and Josh Buss along with hammering enforcers like Jeremiah Kose, Kendrick Van Ackeren and Connor Strahm.
Although Montana did make the playoffs five times, the Griz also missed the postseason five times, a previously unfathomable fall for a program that was a lock for football in November and December for an entire generation. Montana had its 2011 Big Sky title vacated by the NCAA, meaning UM “officially” did not win the conference this decade.
This list reveals some of the reasons why. Only three offensive linemen – offensive tackles Danny Kistler, Jon Opperud and David Reese – earned first-team All-Big Sky honors for a team that previously churned out All-American offensive linemen more prevalently than any program in the country.
The NCAA scholarship penalties also reflected in the defensive secondary, where only Trumaine Johnson earned first-team all-conference honors this decade.
But 13 players (and likely at least one more when you include departing senior linebacker Dante Olson) earned shots with professional franchises. Eight forged true professional careers.
Players considered for these lists needed to only fit one rule: each athlete must have played two seasons this decade. Because of this, players like record-setting running back Chase Reynolds, NFL-caliber defensive back Jimmy Wilson, solid center Alex Verlanic, cerebral safety Erik Stoll and steady quarterback Andrew Selle, all members of that 2009 Griz team and seniors in 2010, were not selected to this list.
Skyline Sports will be putting together an all-decade Griz team for the first 10 years of the 21st century soon as well.
Montana won 79 games over the last decade, finishing with a losing record just once, a 5-6 mark in 2012. This season, Hauck’s second back at the controls, the Griz advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs and won 10 games.
Here are the players most influential in a decade of success and turmoil for the Grizzlies.
MONTANA ALL-DECADE TEAM – OFFENSE
Quarterback – Jordan Johnson
One of the harder decisions on this entire list came at the most important position on the field. Johnson beats out Dalton Sneed, Montana’s most recent electrifying quarterback, for a post on the all-decade team because of Montana’s run to the semifinals of the 2011 playoffs and Johnson’s return from expulsion by UM’s administration.
Pflugrad started recruiting the Eugene, Oregon native when Pflugrad was still coaching wide receivers on Hauck’s staff in 2009. When Pflugrad took over, one of his first signees was the Oregon 6A Player of the Year out of Sheldon High.
Johnson showed flashes of his athleticism and quick-strike ability in his freshman year of 2010. The following season, Montana stumbled to a 2-2 start, an ominous sign for a program that had missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992 the year before.
Johnson threw three interceptions in a 42-28 loss to Sacramento State, the first time the Hornets had ever defeated Montana. Johnson did not play in the following week’s 55-28 win over Northern Colorado and did nothing of note in wins over Idaho State, Portland State and Northern Arizona.
Then against Weber State, Johnson tied a school record by throwing for six touchdown passes as the Griz offensive personnel finally clicked in Pflugrad’s spread option offense. That 45-10 victory, UM’s fifth straight, set the stage for a 36-10 demolition of No. 1 Montana State in Bozeman and a pair of dominant wins over Central Arkansas and Northern Iowa before losing by a field goal in the semifinals of the playoffs to Sam Houston State.
The adversity Johnson endured the first half of his sophomore year paled in comparison to the next 18 months of his life. Johnson was accused of sexual intercourse without consent in March of 2012.
Over the next year, Johnson endured expulsion from UM and the Griz football team, a lengthy and much-publicized trial and, ultimately, an acquittal. Pflugrad and O’Day were fired in connection with the accusations.
Johnson missed the entire 2012 season before returning to the Griz. As a junior in 2013, he threw for 3,387 yards and 32 touchdowns, both top five single-season totals in school history. As a senior, he threw for 2,778 yards and 24 touchdowns, leading Montana to the playoffs both years.
He finished his career with 8,609 passing yards, the third-most in school history behind only Dave Dickenson (11,080) and Brian Ah Yat (9,315). His 77 touchdown passes also rank third behind Dickenson (96) and Ah Yat (89).
He earned All-Big Sky honors three times, including a third-team selection in 2013.
Running back – Jordan Canada
Montana’s string of NFL-caliber running backs between 2000 and 2009, a group that includes Yohance Humphery, Justin Green, Lex Hilliard and Reynolds, made Canada and Peter Nguyen’s solid seasons thereafter not get the credit they deserved.
But Canada is one of the most underrated Griz skill players this decade and overall. He became the feature back in 2013 and rushed for 1,062 yards. The following season, he rushed for 1,207 yards, the seventh-best single-season total in program history.
Canada finished his career fourth in rushing yards (3,435) and touchdowns (40), trailing only Humphery, Reynolds and Hilliard in each category. He was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a senior in 2014.
Fullback – Dan Moore
Moore is equally as memorable for his muscles as he is for his production on the field.
One of the legendary weight room standouts in Griz football history, the beefy ball carrier rarely played actual fullback in Montana’s spread scheme.
Although he looked more like a linebacker or even an interior defensive lineman than a tailback, Moore still forged some tremendous highlight moments. His 37-yard sprint to the end-zone as part of a 116-yard rushing day against the top-ranked ‘Cats in 2011 is one.
His hurdle and sprint on an 87-yard touchdown reception in a 35-27 loss at Appalachian State in 2012 is another. That afternoon, Moore finished with 93 yards rushing, 145 yards receiving and the long touchdown.
But he could never stay fully healthy. He finished his career with 924 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. His second two seasons, he was really only healthy for about 15 games. But when healthy, he was always fun to watch, particularly on special teams where he racked up 21 tackles in four seasons.
Wide receiver – Jamaal Jones
Despite suffering an injury that cost him his senior year of high school, Jones was still considered one of the top wide receiver prospects in the Northwest during his time competing at Graham-Kapowsin High in Spanaway, Washington.
He spent 2011 and 2012 with the Washington Huskies before transferring to Montana. He was solid but not dominant in his first year with the Griz, catching 42 passes for 760 yards and three touchdowns. Jones himself admitted that he underestimated the level of competition he would face in the Big Sky.
The following two seasons, he had two of the 10 most productive individual seasons by a Griz wide receiver. As a junior, he caught 65 passes for 1,044 yards (10th-most in UM history at the time) and eight touchdowns.
As a senior, Jones earned first-team All-Big Sky and All-American honors by catching 75 passes for 1,217 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 75 catches were the fifth-most in school history at the time, his yardage total also ranked fifth and his touchdown total is just outside the top five.
Those final two years also helped Jones rise to No. 1 in school history in receiving yards with 3,012. His 184 catches were third at the time of his graduation. His 22 career touchdown are the sixth-most at Montana.
Wide receiver – Ellis Henderson
If Samuel Akem would’ve stayed healthy this year, he might’ve stolen this spot from Henderson. And much of Henderson’s legacy is defined by what might have been at Montana had he been able to stay healthy, mentally and physically.
But when he was at his best, Henderson was one of the most explosive players to ever play wide receiver for the Griz. He was a second-team All-Big Sky selection in 2013 after becoming the 11th Montana player to ever surpass 1,000 yards receiving. That same year, he tied Etu Molden’ single-season record for touchdown catches in a season with 14.
In 2013, Henderson averaged a ludicrous 23.4 yards per catch. He also was an all-conference pick as a return specialist after averaging a Big Sky-best 12.2 yards per punt return and 24 yards per kick return.
Henderson played in just five games in 2014 before leaving the team and dropping out of school. He was initially ruled academically ineligible and many wondered if he would ever return.
Eventually, Henderson went on the record to discuss his mental health struggles and their influence on his academics. He returned to the Griz before the 2015 season and then announced his presence resoundingly in his first game back. He caught seven passes for 133 yards and a touchdown in Montana’s unforgettable 38-35 victory over reigning national champion North Dakota State.
Henderson eventually got that year of lost eligibility back and finished what was considered his redshirt junior year with 49 catches for 817 yards and seven touchdowns.
The following off-season, when his academics again became in question, he walked away from the program for good, foregoing his final year to enter the NFL draft.
Henderson still finished his career with 2,295 receiving yards, the 11th-most in school history. His 23 career touchdown catches are the fifth-most ever at UM.
Wide receiver – Samori Toure
Toure is one of the few current players to garner consideration and he did it with a historic, record-breaking junior season.
The speedy, smooth receiver from Portland was an overlooked recruit in high school who had a breakout season as a UM freshman in Stitt’s final season at the helm. In 2017, Toure caught 31 passes for 553 yards and five touchdowns, including two scoring receptions of longer than 80 yards. There have only been 12 catches at least that length in UM history.
Toure did not have the sophomore year many anticipated. He caught 37 passes for 440 yards and two touchdowns while Akem emerged as Sneed’s go-to target.
After an entire off-season battling sophomore Mitch Roberts for his starting spot, Toure exploded with arguably the greatest single receiving season in Montana history.
He set Montana single-season records with 87 catches for 1,495 yards and his 13 receiving touchdowns are the second-most in school history. His reception total surpassed Joe Douglass’s 1996 season in which he caught 82 passes. Toure’s yardage total broke Marc Mariani’s previous record of 1,479 yards set in 2009.
Toure enters his senior season with 155 receptions, 2,488 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career. He needs 76 catches to break the record of 230 receptions set last season by Jerry Louie-McGee. He needs just 534 yards to break Jones’ yardage record. And Toure needs 10 touchdowns to break Mariani’s career record of 29 scoring receptions.
Tight end – Greg Hardy
Coming out of tiny Class C Fairview High, Hardy was one of the most decorated prep athletes in the history of the state of Montana. He earned first-team all-conference honors in football, basketball and track four times each.
He parlayed that into carving out a career that made him one of the most surefire selections to this list. He ended his Griz career by starting 36 straight games, earning first-team All-Big Sky honors in 2011 and 2012.
Hardy caught 51 passes for 472 yards and two touchdowns those final two seasons. But his importance from a toughness and leadership aspect along with his physicality and durability as an in-line blocker was essential for a Griz program in a state of flux.
Offensive tackle – Danny Kistler
The 6-foot-8, 325-pounder was the only offensive linemen at Montana this decade who was a first-team All-Big Sky selection in multiple seasons.
He started 40 games overall, including earning first-team All-Big Sky honors in 2012 and 2013. Kislter was also a second-team all-conference pick as a sophomore in 2011.
He was an All-American selection as a senior before signing with the Oakland Raiders in 2014. He won Montana’s Paul Westkamp Award as the Grizzlies’ outstanding offensive lineman two years in a row.
Offensive tackle – Jon Opperud
Opperud turned potential into production as a senior in 2011, anchoring an offensive line that helped spark Montana on a run to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.
The 6-foot-7, 315-pounder was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a senior as Montana won 11 games, including eight in a row on the way to the FCS Final Four. Opperud signed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012 and bounced around the NFL for several years.
Offensive guard – William Poehls
The 6-foot-8, 344-pound behemoth started his final two years at Montana and never earned first-team All-Big Sky honors.
But his mix of size and athleticism helped him play in the NFL between 2014 and 2019. He ascended to the active roster for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017.
At Montana, Poehls started 27 games combined in 2012 and 2013, earning second-team All-Big Sky honors as a senior for a 10-win Griz team.
In terms of a professional career, Poehls is the most successful Griz offensive lineman of the decade and one of the most successful in program history.
Offensive guard – Angel Villanueva
Villanueva’s journey and story of perseverance are worth noting. And he finished his career in style, earning third-team All-Big Sky honors last season as a senior.
But the rest of his career was mostly up and down, going from redshirt freshman starter to injured, maligned veteran on a struggling unit to a player who ultimately got benched before righting the narrative of his career by losing more than 40 pounds and peaking in his final year.
Montana’s offensive guards over the last 10 years have had solid players. Trevor Poole was a third-team all-league pick as a junior in 2013. Devon Dietrich earned honorable mention all-conference honors as a junior and senior in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Villanueva’s spot on this team is as much a testament to his personal resurrection as a player as it is a microcosm of the offensive line situation Hauck inherited when he took over before the 2018 season.
Center — Kjelby Oiland
Oiland, ironically, started his career as a defensive lineman for Hauck at UNLV. He transferred to Montana before the 2011 season and started 12 games at offensive guard.
In his first year playing center in 2012, he earned honorable mention All-Big Sky honors. As a senior the following year, he earned third-team All-Big Sky honors.
If not for a knee injury, Ben Weyer would’ve threatened and maybe even overtaken Oiland on this list. But other than Cy Sirmon, a converted defensive lineman who started for his one and only season at center last season, Oiland is the most highly decorated Montana center of the last 10 years.
Sirmon earned second-team all-league honors last season while Oiland picked up the two all-conference nods.
Kick returner – Jabin Sambrano
Sambrano never had the volume of catches during his career to make his way onto this list as a wide receiver — his career high was 39 catches as a junior in 2010 — but he made his fair share of big plays. He averaged 16.1 yards per catch during his career, snaring 10 of his 19 career touchdowns as a senior.
That big-play ability showed up returning kicks and punts. The lightning fast play-maker ranked in the top three in the Big Sky in kick return averge in 2009 and 2011. As a senior in 2011, he took a kick 96 yards for a touchdown and racked up 836 yards. That year, he also averaged nearly 10 yards per as a punt returner, taking one 44 yards for a score.
Kicker – Brody McKnight
McKnight is one of the rare players who spans both decades. He played in the 2008 and 2009 national championship games, endured the 2010 heartbreaking season and went out with a flourish as a senior in 2011.
McKnight was a part of three Big Sky Conference championship teams and scored the third-most points in Montana history with 387. That total also ranks third in FCS history in points scored by a kicker. Only Dan Carpenter (407 between 2004 and 2007) and Chris Snyder (394 points between 2000 and 2003) have scored more.
McKnight hit 9-of-16 field goals as a freshman in 2008, 15-of-25 the following season and 14-of-18 as a junior. As a senior, he repeated as Griz overall MVP by hitting 21-of-28 field goals.
The native of Vancouver, British Columbia also hit 210 extra points (in 220 attempts), the most PATs in Big Sky history.
McKnight was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 CFL draft, sparking a pro career that lasted three seasons with stops at five of the CFL’s eight teams.
All-purpose – TraVon Van
Van, who was recruited by Florida and USC coming out of high school before eventually landing at Marshall, was one of the most naturally gifted players for the Griz the last 10 years.
Van was the No. 2 back behind Canada after transferring to Montana in 2013. He rushed for 523 yards and six touchdowns while catching 13 passes for 176 yards that year.
In 2014, Van rushed for 478 yards and seven touchdowns to go with 64 catches for 733 yards and five more scores. Despite that production, he was an honorable mention all-conference selection.
Van had the last laugh as his playing career continues. He is in his fifth season in the CFL and played last season with the Edmonton Eskimos. He was part of the Ottawa Redblacks’ Grey Cup title team.
Honorable mention: QB Dalton Sneed, WR Samuel Akem, WR Jabin Sambrano OT, John Schmaing, OT David Reese, OT Conlan Beaver, OG Trevor Poole, OG Devon Dietrich, C Cy Sirmon, C Steve Sabin, C Ben Weyer.
Photos contributed by University of Montana Athletics, or Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.