MISSOULA, Montana — The Montana Grizzlies brought in three physically impressive transfers along their the defensive line in the off-season.
But it’s been a collection of underclassmen that has helped UM’s defensive front boost its collective production.
“I’ve been really impressed with them,” Montana senior captain nose tackle Jesse Sims said following Wednesday’s practice at Washington-Grizzly Stadium as the No. 8 Griz prepare to take on Portland State. “The physical aspect of it is big on the defensive line but we have some pretty developed young guys. Physically, they are right there with everyone else and they are learning as much as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Sims, a Stevensville native who wears Montana’s prestigious No. 37, and All-American linebacker Dante Olson are the only senior starters on UM’s front seven. The rest of the defensive front is filled out with young players.
Third-year sophomore Braydon Deming is the starter at one defensive end spot. Redshirt freshman Alex Gubner is the starter at the other down lineman spot next to Sims. At Montana’s REB position, a hybrid outside linebacker/edge position that usually plays standing up but frequently rushes the passer, sophomore Patrick O’Connell has been the starter for most of Big Sky Conference play.
Ryder Rice, a graduate transfer from Rocky Mountain College who prepped at Class C 6-man Savage High, has played spot snaps and provided good pressure out of UM’s third down blitz packages. Joe Babros, a transfer from North Carolina State, and Mason Vinyard, a transfer from Washington State, have played sparingly as UM has favored its rising yet inexperienced talent.
“You have to be good up front or you are not going to be good on either side of the ball,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said before Wednesday’s practice. “We are in a spot right now in our development as a program where we have had to play some young guys. It’s not always productive but they are taking to it.”
When he embarked on his second tenure at his alma mater, Hauck inherited a defensive group that featured high-character seniors like Reggie Tilleman, Kyle Davis and David Shaw. But those veterans lacked the top-end talent that trademarked Hauck’s first tenure between 2003 and 2009.
On the way to seven straight Big Sky Conference championships and appearances in the 2004, 2008 and 2009 national title games, Hauck’s teams averaged 32 sacks per season. The 2004 team rolled up 41 sacks, the most under Hauck and a total bolstered by Mike Murphy’s breakout sophomore season. The 2007 team featured Kroy Biermann, the first Buck Buchanan Award winner in Montana history after notching 15 of UM’s 30 sacks before embarking on a successful NFL career.
No player on the 2008 and 2009 teams reached double-digit sacks. Jace Palmer totaled 8.5 in 2008, a year Montana notched 32. And Palmer had 5.5 in 2009 to pace a Griz defense with low under Hauck of 23.
Last season, Montana notched 24 sacks, a total that ranked fourth in the Big Sky. But the aforementioned seniors chipped in just 2.5 sacks. And the Griz defensive line managed seven sacks. Deming came off the bench to lead the unit with two sacks.
Thanks to the emergence of O’Connell (team-high four sacks), along with the solid play of Gubner, the UM defensive line has 11 of UM’s 16 sacks eight games into this season.
“It’s awesome to see,” Sims said after notching his first sack of the season in a 34-17 win over Eastern Washington that moved UM to 3-1 in league play, 6-2 overall. “It feels like yesterday that I was a young guy looking for playing time. Those are kids with a lot of talent who are going to be the next big guys here in this program. It’s awesome to see them getting better.”
Deming, a 6-foot-4, 260-pounder who played tight end and linebacker at Billings West High, has battled a nagging knee injury for most of the year. But he has provided solid toughness on the defensive front, allowing Olson to total 99 tackles already this season. Deming also has a sack. Even though he’s only a sophomore, he is a veteran on the defensive front.
“It’s pretty steep learning from experience last year but the veterans like Jesse really made it easy for me last year,” Deming said. “(Defensive line) Coach (Barry) Sacks puts them in a position to make plays. He makes sure they have their assignments down clear and makes sure they are confident and ready to play.
“You have to have a mixture of both technique and strength. The technique is one thing but you are still running into a 300-pounder each play so you have to be ready for that contact on each and every down.”
Hauck has always made a priority out of playing high-motor players early as pass rushers on advantageous down and distances. Players like Lance Spencer and Dustin Dlouhy were never full-time starters but still have their names on Montana’s career sacks record boards.
This season, the pass rush specialist duties have fallen to O’Connell, redshirt freshman Milton Mamula and true freshman Jacob McGourin. O’Connell, who started his career at the University of Mary before walking on to the Griz before last season, ranks ninth in the league in sacks.
Mamula, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from New Jersey who once held an offer from Michigan before injuries derailed his high school career, has one sack this season. But he has consistently showed great burst, hip bend, explosiveness and natural pass rushing ability. Hurries are perhaps the most inaccurate collegiate stat, particularly at the FCS level, but Mamula has put pressure on opposing quarterbacks throughout the Big Sky season.
“Milton is super athletic, gets off the ball quick, good in the pass rush,” Sims said. “That’s why you see him in a lot of third downs because he can get after the quarterback.”
McGourin, a 6-foot-5, 236-pounder from Cheney, Washington, has played the least of the three. He has only appeared in three games as the UM coaches try to save him as long as possible in case he might be able to take a redshirt. Under a new NCAA rule, players can play in up to four games and still retain their redshirt status.
During Big Sky play, McGourin was arguably Montana’s best pass rusher in a 45-20 win at No. 4 UC Davis. He notched his first career sack in that game. He also earned a sack last week against Eastern Washington, his hometown team and the school where his father played.
“He’s a good, young player,” Hauck said. “He’s done a nice job. When we recruited him last year, I thought he was probably the top player in our class. That is probably trying to predict the future but I was pretty high on him. I’m glad to see him having a good freshman year.”
As the calendar turns to November, Montana prepares for a trip Saturday to Portland State. Junior Davis Alexander is one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league and the general of PSU’s offense. Confusing him and putting him under pressure will be beneficial for a Griz team trying to earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2015.
“Those young guys have worked hard,” Hauck said. “And it’s good for our team to see them making plays. And certainly we are happy for them as individuals.
“We are going to need them to keep going down the stretch.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.