Heading into the 2016 season, Montana defensive coordinator Jason Semore faced the task of replacing three senior linebackers and STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Tyrone Holmes, now plying his trade in the NFL.
The result was a reloaded defensive unit long on talent, but short on experience that still finished 2016 as the Big Sky’s No. 1 overall defense, holding opponents to just 349 yards per game, and ranked ninth nationally in tackles for loss with an average of 8.1 per game.
Montana’s 2016 defense also set a school record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a single game, holding Mississippi Valley State to -61 total yards in UM’s 66-7 win.
Though exceedingly productive, the defensive squad’s youthfulness fell victim to big play strikes in Montana’s 6-5 season. But after being thrown into the deep end and forced to swim, Montana’s young defense returns to the field in 2017 as a group, for the most part, built of now seasoned veterans.
Semore welcomes a solid nine returning starters and 12 players who saw action in more than five games last season back to his 2017 outfit. Included in those nine starters are all three linebackers, four defensive backs, plus an abundance of experience on a defensive line bolstered by high-level transfers in the offseason.
But with the likes of Josh Buss (last season’s top tackler and defensive MVP), Connor Strahm and James Banks sitting out the spring recovering from injury, the second year Defensive Coordinator will have the opportunity to build depth across the group and develop the playbook as well.
“We’re going to experiment with some things this spring and see what some of our young guys can do. We know guys like Josh Buss can play, so we want to limit their contact,” said Semore.
“We’ll try some new things, but the base defense as a core, we’ll do a lot of the same things. You want all your guys coming back in the same scheme, learning all the lessons they did last year so they can grow as a defense.
“That’s what makes spring ball so fun for coaches is that you get to put guys in situations and see what they’re good at, what they’re not good at, and build the playbook from there.”
As such, set to move into a more central role at linebacker this spring is last season’s Hauck Family Special Team’s Player of the Year Dante Olson, Vika Fa’atuiese and Cy Sirmon, who each ranked among UM’s top 15 tacklers.
“It’ll be good to see what Dante, Vika, and Cy can do this spring,” added Semore. “Dante is too good of a player not to play. He’s one of the freakiest athletes on our team. We’ve got to find a way to get him on the field.”
“I like our D-line,” said Semore plainly. “I’ll put them against any d-line in the country this year.”
Defensive end Tucker Schye returns to anchor the front four after being bestowed Montana’s legacy 37 jersey, an honor that recognizes obvious talent as UM’s eighth-leading returning tackler, despite backing up Kidder and Johnson last year. The 37 jersey is also an honor that brings high expectations too.
“He’s always been really productive, and when he plays in games, he’s really, really, productive. But it’s different when you’re coming off the bench to spell Caleb, you know? Now you’re the guy, and you have to play 70 snaps, but I think he’ll succeed because he has a great work ethic and a great attitude,” said Semore.
The defensive interior received a big boost in the offseason in the form of Maryland transfer David Shaw, who checks in at a solid 310 pounds, bringing Big 10 experience with him. Nose tackle Brandt Davidson returns this spring as UM’s fifth-leading tackler, while junior Reggie Tillemanprepares to move into a more active role on the D-line as well.
“Their impact will be huge. I feel good about four of our D-tackles right now, our noses and our tackles – and I don’t know how many other FCS coaches can say that,” said Semore.
“Brandt was one of the better tackles in the league last year, so to have him and Shaw competing for that starting position, with Reggie in there too, will be huge for us.”
Also returning to the defensive interior is sophomore Jesse Sims, who picked up six starts as a redshirt freshman and played in all 11 games after moving inside from defensive end.
Semore says Sims has now found a home as a tackle, a position that suits his natural abilities and aggressive nature.
“Defensive ends have to diagnose what block they’re getting and react. Well, defensive tackles – you just go whoop somebody’s ass, and that matches Jesse’s mentality and his style of play,” said Semore.
The one area where Montana is both deep and young is in the defensive backs. Markell Sanders and Ryan McKinley return a combined 49 tackles and 17 starts from last season on the corners, and former Oregon State safety Justin Strong returns as UM’s third leading tackler, known for his devastating hits. But Semore will use spring ball to address depth concerns behind those three.
“We’re going to be young in that room with the exception of Markell and Ryan. Those guys have a ton of game experience as starters, but this young group of corners is going to be really, really good. Josh Egbo is going to be something special,” added Semore.
Adding more depth to the cornerbacks is redshirt freshman Dareon Nash, who was recruited by Stitt as a wide receiver, but was also a defensive standout.
“His high school corner tape is almost better than his receiver tape. We’re excited to have him,” said Semore of Nash.
“He can go. He has long arms, good feet, so we’ll see how he develops. Technique-wise, he’s going to be behind the curve because it’s a very technical position. We’ll see how he progresses through spring, but athletic ability wise, he’s what you’re looking for at corner.”
Making the permanent switch to strong safety is sophomore Josh Sandry from Bigfork, who picked up three starts his freshman season at free safety, finishing as the team’s ninth-leading tackler with 30 takedowns.
“Physically, he could have started every game last year,” said Semore.
“This spring is going to be big for Josh because the safeties do so much communication in terms of coverage and support. Physically, he could have started more games, but mentally he’s got to learn the position.”
After two practices this spring in shells, the Griz now take a week off for spring break before returning on March 27 in full pads.
The spring season culminates with the annual spring game, this year slated for historic Naranche Stadium in Butte on April 22. Tickets for the spring game are available at the Adams Center Box Office or at GrizTix.com.