Sitting in a Spokane conference room for the Big Sky Kickoff Monday, senior Montana defensive tackle Reggie Tilleman represented three eras of Griz football.
He was a member of Mick Delaney’s last recruiting class, played his way into the lineup under Bob Stitt, and will now be a key player during the return of Bobby Hauck. Along with fellow redshirt seniors Kyle Davis, Shayne Cochran, Josh Buss and Evan Epperly, Tilleman is one of just five Grizzlies who can say that.
Those five are the last remnants of Delaney’s 2014 recruiting class, which was burdened by scholarship restrictions.
Of the 24 players in the class, some never saw the field, some washed out, and others have already finished their Griz careers.
Tilleman, Davis, Cochran, Buss and Epperly are the last five Grizzlies standing.
“There’s that core group of guys who have stuck around, and it illustrates what Montana football is all about,” said Tilleman, who’s great uncle Mike Tilleman is a UM Hall of Famer who earned All-Big Sky Conference honors for the Grizzlies in the 1960s before a long NFL career. “You look at that group of guys and they’re all extremely hard workers. They get their work done, they’re never late for things. You just kind of illustrate what it is to be a Montana football player.”
After riding out the ups and downs of one of the most turbulent periods in Montana football history, they’re poised to contribute in their final year. Tilleman was Montana’s defensive representative at the Big Sky Kickoff. After playing sporadically in 2017, he’s expected to be a starting defensive lineman in 2018 under a defense expected to make a jump simply because of the new yet renewed mindset implemented Hauck in his second stint at Montana.
Buss, while he wasn’t at the Kickoff, dominated the proceedings nonetheless, being named the Preseason Defensive Player of the Year after making 94 tackles from his linebacker position in 2017.
Cochran, Davis and Epperly, also defensive players, are also expected to play important roles this fall.
“They always set the standard,” UM senior wide receiver Keenan Curran said while sitting next to Tilleman at the Spokane Convention Center. “You’ll see some carryover from coach Delaney having that ‘Montana tough’ mantra. They’re always working the hardest, they always set the tone in the weight room, they always set the tone out on the field.”
The five of them have seen big wins and crushing losses, but their biggest challenges might have come off the field.
Delaney left after their freshman year, replaced by Stitt, who lasted just three years before Hauck was hired again for his second go-round in charge of the Griz.
“My biggest learning experience would probably be both coaching changes,” Tilleman said. “I think that being able to adapt to different coaching styles and being able to work under different bosses is something that can be applied to just about anything in life.”
Going through the Delaney to Stitt transition helped the redshirt seniors adjust to yet another coaching change in the most recent offseason.
Having already seen it happen once, they were prepared when Hauck replaced Stitt after the 2017 season, and were able to help their teammates adjust as well.
“I think being able to use those experiences to kind of lead the team, get us going in the right direction, has been extremely useful,” Tilleman said. “We can kind of impart that experience on other guys and say, ‘Hey, this is what the new coach is going to be looking for, this is what you guys have to be on top of.’”
Besides Buss, none of the five redshirt seniors are stars, or even played much during their first four years. They could have quit like some of the other players from their class, been cut, incurred injury or just moved on from football.
But good things come to those who wait, and now Tilleman and his classmates hope they will reap the rewards of their perseverance.
“I think you look around and you really see how special a place it is, and how truly lucky you are to be at such a historic program and such a proud program,” Tilleman said. “I think it just comes down to that, and I just love playing football, too. There’s no better place to play football than Montana, so that’s kind of why I stuck it out.”