MISSOULA — Patrick O’Connell had a simple task: He needed to bet on himself.
Now, he’s reaping the rewards.
The Montana redshirt sophomore linebacker walked onto to the Grizzlies’ football team in 2018 after one semester as a two-sport athlete at the University of Mary, an NCAA Division II school in Bismarck, North Dakota. O’Connell, a 2017 Kalispell Glacier High School grad, was on scholarship for football and baseball at Mary.
O’Connell played football his first year at Mary but opted to leave after both coaching staffs at Mary for football and baseball were let go.
Now, O’Connell is budding into a young star for Montana in a position group in which the Grizzlies are already fruitful with depth. Statistically, O’Connell leads the Griz in sacks with three – a mark that is tied for third in the Big Sky Conference – and has also racked up 16 total tackles, 10 of which are solo. He’s added a QB hit and a pair of pass breakups to his stat line.
“I’ve just been making my opportunities count,” O’Connell said after Wednesday’s practice. “Never taking a play off, or rep in the weight room, and just working hard. Anytime that I can give my best effort on every rep that I get.”
O’Connell said he originally went to Mary for the opportunity to play two sports, with baseball serving as his first love. But after the first semester, he felt football was the better path for him.
O’Connell played right away as a true freshman at Mary and away he went.
“It definitely helped seeing the field right away as a true freshman,” O’Connell said. “My coach, Jason Thier, he helped me develop a lot over there as a linebacker so I’m very thankful for him. But seeing the field definitely helped and getting used to the college level. That was awesome.”
It was that learning curve at the Division II level that O’Connell credits to helping him be ready once he arrived in Missoula.
But once changes occurred in Bismarck, O’Connell began looking elsewhere to play. From afar, he saw Bobby Hauck’s rehiring with the Grizzlies, and decided he’d take a shot and return home.
O’Connell made it through walk-on tryouts and has been climbing the ladder ever since, making his gamble to leave sure playing time to join a new team at a higher level, a beneficial one.
“I was talking to my family a lot about it and they were saying, ‘Well, what happens if this or that happens?’” O’Connell explained. “I was talking to them, but I wasn’t too worried about that just knowing what I could do personally and what I’ve done before and my hard work and where it got me.”
O’Connell’s talent was evident at Glacier High School. As a three-sport standout, O’Connell was a captain in football, basketball and baseball. He helped lead the Wolfpack to the 2016 Class AA state football championship game as a senior in a year where he racked up 135 tackles, 18 for loss, while adding four sacks and two interceptions as well.
O’Connell spent three seasons with the Class AA Kalispell Lakers baseball team and also helped guide the Wolfpack to the 2017 State AA boys basketball title, a first in school history. O’Connell led the Wolfpack in scoring with 11 points, including two free throws with six seconds left, to lift Glacier to a 46-42 championship victory over Bozeman.
“Pat’s doing a lot of things right,” Hauck said at his Monday press conference. “He’s making some plays and taking advantages of his opportunities. I always like to see guys come on and get a chance to perform and he’s done a nice job the last couple of weeks.”
O’Connell had to sit out in 2018 due to transfer rules but was named the defensive scout team player of the year. That season helped his growth even more.
“It played a huge role in what I’ve done today,” O’Connell said. “Coach (Matt) Nicholson in the weight room got me ready to be on the field with speed and strength and everything. And then coach Hauck just installing that toughness in us on scout team. Scout team played a huge role in what I’ve been doing today.”
And with vets like redshirt senior Dante Olson and redshirt junior Jace Lewis to look up to, O’Connell has been able to push himself into significant playing time. He’s currently listed on Montana’s two-deep depth chart as the No. 2 at the “Reb” position, behind redshirt senior Ryder Rice, which is a hybrid linebacker and defensive end.
That deep linebacking corps has accelerated O’Connell’s growth on the field as well.
“Those guys are always working their tails off,” O’Connell said. “It’s an honor to be out there playing with them. We all back each other. We don’t want to make mistakes and disappoint each other and I think that’s what makes us a really good group.”
O’Connell has sacks in Montana’s last two games, wins over Monmouth and UC Davis. He’ll aim to keep that momentum rolling when Idaho State (2-2, 1-0) visits Montana (4-1, 1-0) on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“They’re a good team,” O’Connell said. “Like we always say, they’re going to come in and give us their best. But we’re going to give them what we got and see how it goes.”