MISSSOULA — It is common knowledge that one of the primary keys to having a good defense is to have talented players in the middle of that defense.
The University of Montana Grizzly football team has exactly that man in the middle of its defense – veteran free safety Matt Hermanson. He is the leader at that position, and there are four other players who will see action at the free safety and strong safety spots.
With the graduation of three year starter Bo Tully, there are big shoes to fill at the strong safety position.
Hermanson, a 6-foot-1, 202-pounder from Sioux Falls, S.D., who begins his senior season ranked 29th in school history with 239 career tackles, said he sees daily improvement at the safety spot.
“We look pretty good right now and we are getting better day-by-day,” said Hermanson, who has 23 career starts. “That’s what we need to keep doing – just try to get better every day.
“That was a long time ago,” said a laughing Hermanson when asked if he missed playing offense, as he was an all-state selection at quarterback and defensive back when his head coach was his dad, Brian Hermanson, at Washington High School in Sioux Falls. “Playing quarterback was always fun, but playing defense was a lot better to me than playing quarterback, so I decided to go to defense.”
Junior Justin Whitted, a 6-1, 195-pounder from Los Angeles, was vying for the spot vacated by Tully at strong safety, but he has been sidelined with an injury.
Following spring drills Griz head coach Mick Delaney said one of the most improved players on defense was Jake Dallaserra in the secondary, and with Whitted out due to an injury, Dallaserra has seized his opportunity and worked his way up to the number one slot at strong safety.
“It feels good to be out here,” said Dallaserra, a 5-11, 190-pound junior from Butte, who excelled on special teams at UM last season. “I can only control what I can control, and try to be coach-able and learn the defense and play to the best of my ability.”
“Jake’s doing a great job out there,” Hermanson said. “He’s holding his own, doing a great job, and making plays for us. Hopefully we can get Whitted back – he’s a little banged up right now. Eric (Johnson) is doing a great job and he’s learning the defense.”
“He’s just a physical kid,” Dallaserra said when asked to describe the play of Hermanson. “He hits harder than anyone on the team. He’s the smartest player on the defense. He’s a great guy to play with, and he communicates across the field with me and lets me know when to check this and check that. He’s awesome to play with out there.”
A new player in the program, Eric Johnson, has shown signs of being a major contributor this season, and Jamaal Anderson has also turned a few heads at his new position.
A transfer from Laney Junior College, Johnson, a junior from San Francisco, is a physical presence at strong safety at 6-2, 190 and will vie for playing time, if not a starting job. He was a key player on defense and on special teams last season for the Eagles, who defeated Diablo Valley College 29-14 in the EastBay Bowl en route to an 8-3 record.
Anderson was moved from cornerback to safety last spring, and the 5-11, 195-pound senior from Fontana, Calif., has adapted to his new position well.
Two other very promising players at safety are true freshman Manu Rasmussen (6-0, 180), from Tigard, Ore., and Evan Epperly (5-10, 180, from Kalispell), although they will more-than-likely redshirt in 2014.
“I am pretty excited about the competition,” said safeties coach Jake Cookus, who was a four-year letterman at Oregon State, and a team captain on defense and an honorable mention All-Pac10 pick as a senior in 2001. “We’ve got Matt back who has played a lot of football. We also have three underclassmen who haven’t played a lot of football, but they are really good players. We’ve been rotating them around and they are pushing each other each day, making themselves better.
“Jake’s played some football on special teams and got a lot of reps last year, so he’s competing,” Cookus said. “We’ve got a new junior college kid (Johnson) who is doing a nice job picking up the defense and showed some signs of being a really good football player. Jamaal’s been doing a nice job. So it’s great competition, and we’re going to have five good safeties who can play.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR TY GREGORAK COMMENTS ON THE SAFETIES:
“I was disappointed and bummed for Justin (Whitted). He’s had some bad luck health-wise. I really have high hopes for him. He is such a dynamic athlete that I’d just love to see him on the field, and frankly he just needs the reps.
“That being said, Jake Dallaserra out of Butte, Eric Johnson, our new Laney College transfer, are going back-and-forth with the one and two reps. Both are doing a nice job. We are also working Jake out at our nickel. Jamaal Anderson is having a nice camp. Jamaal is leading the secondary in turnovers right now with four. He’s showing up.
“Matt Hermanson, I think, will be special. I don’t know how else to say it. I think Matt will have a head-turning year. I’m not going to say he is Colt (Anderson, an All-American safety at UM in 2008), because he’s got to go out and do it and have a senior season like Colt. But, if he stays healthy and does the things the way he has in the past, the guy has a real chance to be the next great safety that people will talk about.
“Matt has had an excellent camp. He just lines up back there and he’s the quarterback of our defense. I wish we had him another year. We played him as a true freshman in 2011 (when he played in all 13 games and had one start), and he did a nice job being in that role. In 2012 he battled more injuries than people know about, and last year he showed flashes of what we’re going to see this year on a regular basis.
“I am happy with the way Dallaserra has played too. He’s really shown up. We’re putting a lot on his plate right now. But overall he is having an excellent camp. I’ll say this about Eric Johnson. For a kid whose been here nine or 10 days we’ve thrown a ton at him and he’s picked it up very well.”
The Griz practice tomorrow (Friday) at 9:40 a.m. is tentatively set at the Riverbowl practice site, but may be moved to the stadium depending on whether or not the Riverbowl’s grass playing surface gets slippery from a projected rain storm for tonight (Thursday).
Montana’s second scrimmage is slated for Saturday, Aug. 16, starting around 10:10 a.m. in WGS. There will be no admission charge.
FALL CAMP/GRIZ NOTES: With returning starting offensive tackles Trevor Poole and John Schmaing currently sidelined, a trio of sophomores are currently in those spots with the number one offense. Jackson Thiebes (6-5, 255), a sophomore from Kalispell is at left tackle, while Devon Dietrich (6-4, 270 from Woodinville, Wash.) is at right tackle along with fellow sophomore McCauley Todd (6-7, 300, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa).
In team drills at this morning’s (Thursday) practice, Anderson had a nice diving interception – his second pick in the past two practices. On offense, senior quarterback Jordan Johnson (Eugene, Ore.) connected with Josh Janssen for a 4-yard touchdown. A former Loyola High standout and redshirt freshman, Janssen caught 43 passes for 958 yards and 15 TDs for the 12-0 Rams in 2012 when they won their first-ever State B championship.
Another bright spot came at the end of practice. Kickers Harrison Greenberg, Chris Lider, and Daniel Sullivan made eight-of-nine field goal attempts, and all three connected on their tries from 38 and 44 yards out. The solo miss was a 40-yarder by Greenberg, whose attempt hit the right crossbar.
GRIZ STATS & FACTS: Hermanson was ranked 51st in the FCS in tackles per game, averaging 8.9 last season. Hermanson was second on the team with 107 tackles last year, trailing only linebacker Brock Coyle who had 125. Montana was ranked 15th in the nation in 2013 with 16 interceptions.
Tully finished his career with 179 career tackles and six interceptions. He started in 32 career games and played in 48. He was a two-time All-District 7 academic team selection.
Anthony “Chief” Goodwin, a starting cornerback last season as a senior, was ranked 17th in the nation in passes defended a year ago, averaging 1.2 a game.
The Griz have been the No 1. preseason pick by the media and coaches 11 times the last 15 seasons. Montana was picked second in both of the 2014 preseason polls, while defending champion Eastern Washington was tabbed the favorite.
— Montana Sports Information