MISSOULA — With the graduation of three of the most prolific linebackers in school history, Griz Nation was concerned how the University of Montana could replace that dynamic trio in 2014.
Not to worry. Juniors Kendrick Van Ackeren, Herbert Gamboa, and Jeremiah Kose, the Grizzlies’ three starters this season, have not earned their stripes yet, but proved last spring and in pre-fall camp they have the talent to get the job done at that position.
The linebacking corps also has talented depth with the likes of junior Connor Lebsock, and redshirt freshman Tucker Schye and Connor Strahm.
Those three former players, Brock Coyle, John (JP) Kanongata’a, and Jordan Tripp, left the Griz program ranked fourth, 12, and 16th in school history in career tackles, with 225, 293, and 269, respectively. All three were All-Big Sky Conference picks as well. Coyle (Seahawks) and Tripp (Dolphins) have also excelled in NFL camps recently.
“They’re playing fast, and I am enthused with the speed and tempo in which they are practicing and playing with,” said Griz defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Ty Gregorak. “I am fired up about the linebackers. It was a big question mark on everybody’s mind when you lose three all-conference guys, who were really, really fine linebackers.
“You know everybody says we’re young, but that’s just not true,” Gregorak said. “Four of the six are juniors – they just haven’t played a ton of linebacker here; but they are experienced players. I think the one thing that pops up to people is the way we run. Four of the six are former safeties or receivers in high school.”
A 6-1, 220-pounder from San Clemente, Calif, Gamboa, who played as a true freshman in 2012 and has played in 18 career games, was moved from safety to linebacker last fall. He played in 11 games last season and had 14 tackles. He is a 2014 “honors candidate” at UM.
“Herbert Gamboa is having an excellent camp,” Gregorak said. “I expect huge things from him. He’s a fantastic athlete. He not only has outstanding speed, but also has a lot of pop when he makes a tackle. He’s explosive and I love what he brings to the defense.”
“Our D-line of course makes everything easier for us,” said Gamboa, who was a personal best of 10.71 in the 100 meters in high school. “It’s our job just to fill the gaps and make the tackles. I definitely feel more comfortable playing linebacker.”
Kose (6-2, 230, from Oceanside, Calif.), who has been slowed by injuries the past two seasons, was a first team all-league selection at linebacker as a freshman at Palomar Community College in 2011. Those injuries have allowed him to play in just two games at UM.
“Jeremiah really showed up Saturday (in the scrimmage),” Gregorak said. “I thought in the first two weeks he was kind of dusting off two years without playing a ton of football. I was very excited about the way he came out and scrimmaged. He was everywhere and showed a lot of pop. He was very, very good.”
“I’m feeling good at the moment,” said Kose, whose uncle is Griz defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa. “I’ve got to continue to try and stay healthy and do all of the right things off the field, staying in that training room and in the weight room. Playing with these two, I think I am lucky. Herbert is really fast and Kenny’s just really smart, and helps me a lot. If I get beat inside, I feel like Herbert can catch anybody. I am just excited to be out there and be able to play again.”
Schye (6-4, 225, from Malta) is a rangy player who had 100 tackles, 20 sacks, and 10 forced fumbles his senior year for the Mustangs, who were the Class B runners-up that season.
Strahm (6,0 235, from Eugene, Ore.), was the state’s 6A defensive player of the year when he had 53 tackles and four interceptions for Sheldon High School’s state championship team as a senior (2012).
A transfer from Hawaii where he had 24 tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2012, Van Ackeren (6-1, 220, from Bellevue, Wash.), had 29 stops for the Griz last season and is the team’s ninth leading returning tackler. He is also an “honors candidate” this year.
“Kendrick has been battling an injury for the last week, but he hasn’t missed a rep,” Gregorak said. “He is a very smart and heady football player. I love having him here, and glad we got him from Hawaii. He came back here thinking he’d go back to safety – he played quarterback and safety in high school, but with his body type and ability we moved him to linebacker. I think he will have a great year.”
“We like to fly around,” said Van Ackeren, who played at prep power Bellevue High School in Washington. “It’s kind of what we’ve done all of our lives, and we’re going to continue to do that out here. I think we all lead together, and we all work well together as a group.”
“I relied so heavily on those three guys last year and the year before, those three very special players,” Gregorak said. “If you know anything about me and the way I like to do in this group – I do like to rotate linebackers. I’ve got to do what’s best for the defense and we’ve got to be as close to fresh towards that fourth quarter as we possibly can. So, I expect to see a six-man rotation.”
Lebsock (6-2, 205, from Billings), played in all 13 games last year after missing most of his freshman season with an injury, and was 17th on the team with 23 tackles.
“Connor will be part of that rotation,” Gregorak said. Connor is a very steady football player for us. He does not make a lot of errors. He’s a very smart player and definitely like his older brother (Shawn, who played linebacker for the Griz from 2006-09). You can tell he’s a coaches kid (his dad, Ron, is the head coach at Billings Skyview HS) by the way he plays with so much intelligence.
“Those two (Schye and Strahm) have come a long way,” Gregorak said. “For them, at that age, is just a matter of learning the defense. It’s a great group, and I am excited and very happy with where we are at. Again, I know we were a question mark with what we lost, but I think this group will go out and surprise some people this year.”
“At this point it’s certainly a position in which we have great competition,” said head coach Mick Delaney. “Certainly the work ethic of those guys is outstanding. They are all going to play, so I really feel linebacker will be one of our strengths this year.”
FALL CAMP/GRIZ NOTES: The offense got a nice boost today when junior receiver Jamaal Jones (6-1, 191, from Spanaway, Wash.), returned to the field after missing last week with an injury. Jones was second on the team last season with 42 receptions and 760 receiving yards. A couple of key plays by the defense in this morning’s practice, which was number 16, was a sack by sophomore defensive end Ryan Johnson (6-2 ½, 255, from Vancouver, Wash.), and a tackle for loss by Zack Wagenmann.
As in fall camp last summer coach Delaney has decided not to hold scrimmage number three, which was scheduled for Thursday morning, Aug. 21.
“Scrimmages, as I have said for so long, have changed so much over the years,” Delaney said. “You used to hold them to find out who would compete, who the tough guys were, and who you can count on. We found out plenty in the first two scrimmages. We knew coming in by the work they had done in the spring, winter, and the summer who could do what. So why go out and scrimmage just to scrimmage? We feel like we can get more done by putting our focus on game situations and working on that.”
The final two-a-day practice of fall camp is Wednesday, Aug. 20.
GRIZ STATS & FACTS: The Griz were ranked second in the FCS in turnover margin last season (1+1.4); fifth in total fumbles recovered (16); 15th in total interceptions (16); and 28th in scoring defense (22.9 ppg).
Coyle led the Big Sky and was ranked fifth in the FCS with .38 forced fumbles a game, and 28th in the nation in tackles a game (9.6). Coyle, Kanongata’a and Tripp each started all 13 games last season. The three senior starting linebackers a year ago played in a combined 153 career games.
The Grizzlies allowed just five total touchdowns (and five PATs) in the fourth quarter, along with three field goals, allowing 44 total points. Montana out-scored its 13 opponents 149-44 in the fourth quarter last year.
— Montana Sports Information