By Bill Foley
Football players are supposed to look mean.
That is especially true when you’re talking about an outside linebacker who ranks among the NAIA national leaders in sacks.
Montana Tech’s Connor Wines, however, doesn’t exactly fit that bill.
The lasting image of Wines’ 10-sack season in 2017 just might be him wearing glasses and squatting down to show Inara Moore, a young Butte girl, how to throw the ball during the Punt, Pass and Kick competition.
Montana Tech took over running the event when it was dropped by the NFL following the 2016 season, and Wines was one of the many Oredigger football players to lend a hand running the event, like they have done for years.
Nobody had more fun than Wines, who helped run the youngest group of boys and girls. His hand had to be hurting from all the high fives he gave and received.
“That was a blast seeing all those kids,” Wines said of that October Sunday on the Bob Green Field. “We had a ton of kids come out, too. That was great.”
Whether it’s the Punt, Pass and Kick, Big Brothers Big Sister, the food drive, or many other events in the Mining City, you can expect to see Orediggers there. Wines has been one of the more visible.
“In a community like Butte where they’re supporting us so much, to go out and give something back, that’s huge,” Wines said after a “spring” practice Friday evening. “It’s just great to give back.”
Wines doesn’t have that Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus look about him off the field. On the field, though, is another story.
No. 47 for the Orediggers definitely strikes fear in opposing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers around the Frontier Conference. Wines ranked No. 2 on the team with 48 tackles in 2017. He tied for fifth in the NAIA with one sack per game and tied for 10th in total sacks with 10.
Three and a half of those sacks came during Montana Tech’s 62-14 win over Eastern Oregon at Alumni Coliseum.
“It was cool, it was really cool,” Wines said of being ranked among the national leaders. He was ranked No. 1 or 2 for a couple of weeks midway through the season. “But look at the D-line, too. And the coverage has to be there for me to get as sack.”
Wines, a product of 8-man football from Gardiner, broke onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2015. He appeared in all 12 Oredigger games that season, registering 12 tackles.
The next season, Wines chalked up 34 tackles in a season that was limited to eight games by an injury. He opened some eyes with a pair of seven-tackle games.
Wines really busted out last fall. He got off to a solid start before becoming a household name in Oredigger Nation with his monster game against Eastern Oregon in Week 4.
In addition to his three and a half sacks, Wines chalked up seven tackles, including four and a half tackles for a loss.
Wines also had a big-time performance in Tech’s season-ending game against Southern Oregon. He registered nine tackles and a sack in that 24-10 loss.
Making that game more impressive for Wines was that he suffered a serious wrist injury in the first quarter of that game.
He had surgery after the season, and was cleared to play just in time for spring ball. He has been practicing with a hard cast protecting his wrist.
“I’m just glad to be out here,” Wines said. “Last year I couldn’t play spring ball because I had that shoulder surgery. So I’m just happy to be out here.”
The spring is important because, even though he had a second-team all-conference season, Wines will be called upon to step up his game during his senior season. He has to help fill the leadership void left by departing seniors such as Tyler Sanders, Quinn McQueary, Levi Dawes, Will Davey, Reid Siderius, Andre Brown, Jalen Whitley and Jack Hape.
“Coach has talked to me a lot about it,” Wines said of the leadership role. “All those big-time names are gone. It’s our responsibility now, coming in, taking that leadership role and make sure we don’t have a season like last year.”
Last year, the Orediggers lost their final three games, turning a campaign that began with national title aspirations into a year without a playoff appearance.
“We weren’t satisfied with that 6-4 record,” Wines said. “Our goals haven’t changed at all. We’re still going for a national championship.”
Wines said the margin for error in those losses wasn’t as big as it might seem.
That is even true for Tech’s 64-35 loss at the College of Idaho in the second-to-last game of the season.
Incidentally, Tech heads back to Caldwell to take on the Coyotes to open the 2018 season on Sept. 1. That game is on every Orediggers’ mind throughout the spring.
“We’ve watched film and film, and we’re already getting ready for C of I,” Wines said. “We’re already watching film, knowing what we did wrong. It was just little disciplined mistakes that cost us the game.”
Wines said the spring and summer are critical to the team’s success.
“There’s a big emphasis on staying in the summers,” he said. “My sophomore and junior year we had over 30 and 40 guys stay. That makes a big difference.”
It might make more of a difference when you’re running the complex defense that head coach Chuck Morrell brought to campus. That defense is now run by B.J. Campbell.
“It just slows it down in the summer,” Wines said. “We can all come together and really talk.”
Wines, who was All-State in football and basketball for the Gardiner Bruins, first got a look at that playbook when he was being recruited by Morrell.
“He showed me the playbook, and my jaw kind of dropped,” Wines said. “We didn’t have a playbook in high school, and his playbook was 4 inches thick.”
Four years later, and Wines, who is pursuing a degree in business administration with a minor in marketing, has that book down.
“I do,” he said. “It took a little bit that freshman year, but they were really good about taking it slow.
“They do a big emphasis on, ‘Do your job.’ If everyone does their job, it’s awesome. It really is,” Wines said of the Oredigger scheme. “It’s all checks, too, which is nice. It depends what we’re getting on the field. It’s not like we get in one position and we can’t get out of it. We can check everything. Coach (B.J.) Campbell has done an awesome job.”
Wines, who twice went to the High School National Finals Rodeo in saddle bronc, will likely return to his cowboy roots when he graduates from Tech after his senior season.
“My mom (Nicole) is a cattle broker, and I kind of want to get in the cattle industry,” he said.
First, though, there is the matter of returning the Orediggers to the top of the Frontier Conference and closing out his Montana Tech career in style.
Oh, and there’s one more Punt, Pass and Kick competition to chalk up a few hundred more high fives.