MISSOULA — Depth is aplenty for the Montana Grizzlies defensive backs, and expectations for this position group are through the roof with players like Justin Ford and Robby Hauck back ready to lead this defensive unit.
Ford and Hauck return as seniors and two of three Griz players — along with linebacker Patrick O'Connell — on the preseason watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, as well as across the board preseason all-league and All-American picks.
It comes after both players helped anchor last year's stout Griz defense and now return for their final seasons with UM expected to compete at a national level.
"It builds confidence among each other," said Hauck, whose 364 career tackles rank just behind Dante Olson's school record of 397. "You know, I think playing in the secondary, you got to be mentally tough just because if you mess up or give up a big play everybody notices. You just have to flush the previous play, good or bad, and get back. It's good knowing that you've got guys around you that are willing to make plays and be good for the team."
The Griz base defense uses two corners and three safeties. So joining Hauck at safety are redshirt juniors Nash Fouch (34 total tackles, three pass deflections) and TraJon Cotton (28 total tackles, two pass deflections), two players who started throughout the season a year ago.
On the opposite side of Ford at corner is another returning starter in junior Corbin Walker (29 total tackles, one sack, one interception), so all five of UM's likely starters in the secondary are back with plenty of in-game experience, and ready to hit the ground running.
"Last year, I'm just speaking for myself, it was more so like thinking and playing, where in terms of now, I know this defense so well I just go out there and play," said Ford, who was fourth in Buck Buchanan in voting last year after leading all of NCAA Division I football with nine interceptions. "Like, whatever formation I know where we're playing, I know the checks if they motion and stuff like that which allows me to play more freely which is why I'm so excited for this year."
Garrett Graves (46 total tackles, one interception) also started a few games at safety last year for Montana, while younger players all could compete for minutes at those positions, including Jaxon Lee, TJ Rausch and Ryder Meyer to name a few.
Idaho State transfer Jayden Dawson, a redshirt senior, and redshirt sophomore Trevin Gradney are expected to fill in the depth at corner.
"Probably playing the ball because the ball is the issue whether it's making plays or causing turnovers or breaking up passes or causing fumbles or things like that," Hauck said of the group's focal points. "At the end of the day, we're trying to stop the ball and get it back to our offense so they can score. That's one thing I've noticed with our secondary is we've got a lot of guys who are playing the ball well and breaking up passes or getting it out. That's signs of a good secondary."
With so much talent back, the chemistry is already there with this group.
So this season, it's about taking the Griz defense to another level.
"We have the highest expectations man. If we give up a five yard play we're extremely mad and frustrated. That's how you should be," Ford added. "I think we're the best defense in the conference. We play that way, we play with passion, heart on our sleeve. We run to the ball. We have great athletes. I love our secondary. Our linebackers every year are standing up to the plate and I'm excited for this defense man they get to the ball."
Griz safeties and cornerbacks on the 2022 roster by number
No. 3, TraJon Cotton, R-JR, 6-foot-1, 204 pounds, Sacramento, CA
No. 4, Nash Fouch, R-JR, 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Woodinville, WA
No. 5, Garrett Graves, R-JR, 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, Eureka, MT
No. 9, David Koppang, R-JR, 6-foot-0, 208 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 11, Gabe Longin, R-FR, 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, Great Falls, MT
No. 13, Ryder Meyer, R-SO, 5-foot-9, 178 pounds, Fairfield, MT
No. 16, Joey Visser, FR, 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Boulder, MT
No. 17, Robby Hauck, R-SR, 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 18, Chase McGurran, FR, 6-foot-0, 179 pounds, Helena, MT
No. 19, Padraig Lang, R-FR, 6-foot-1, 181 pounds, Bozeman, MT
No. 24, TJ Rausch, R-FR, 6-foot-3, 196 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 25, Jaxon Lee, SO, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 39, Jace Klucewich, R-FR, 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, Frenchtown, MT
No. 40, Cooper Barnum, SO, 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Vancouver, WA
No. 2, Jayden Dawson, R-SR, 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, Riverside, CA
No. 6, Justin Ford, R-SR, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Concord, NC
No. 7, Dylan Simmons, R-FR, 6-foot-0, 183 pounds, Metairie, LA
No. 8, Corbin Walker, JR, 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, Renton, WA
No. 14, Robert Whitehead, JR, 6-foot-1, 183 pounds, El Cajon, CA
No. 23, Andrew Travillion, R-SO, 6-foot-0, 179 pounds, Pflugerville, TX
No. 27, Trevin Gradney, R-SO, 6-foot-0, 180 pounds, Billings, MT