MISSOULA — The question was more a matter of when, than if.
That, of course, is when Montana redshirt junior linebacker Marcus Welnel would have a breakout game for the Grizzly football team.
And it didn't take long for Welnel to make a statement.
Welnel's starring performance came this past Saturday when the Grizzlies topped FBS Washington 13-7 in Seattle. For many football fans across the state of Montana, they knew what Welnel was capable of thanks to his standout prep career at Helena Capital.
After serving as a backup to UM's all-time tackles leader in Dante Olson, Welnel seized his opportunity when called upon.
"Playing behind someone really talented like I did with Dante and other linebackers, just knowing that they deserve to be playing and I deserve to be waiting for my time," Welnel said. "It was good for me to just practice a lot and really get my reps down for when I went into there Saturday, (so) I knew what I was doing."
For a talented player like Welnel who saw varsity time early in his high school career at Capital, waiting for his turn was a new obstacle to overcome.
"So I’d never really done that before, sitting on the bench, and it’s hard to at first, you’re not used to it," he said. "You’re like, 'Wow, I really want to go play, I really want to go in the game, I think I can help,' then you have to sit back and realize hey, they’re pretty good in front of me, they can do a good job so I let them do it, play special teams and do my job. Just be patient, I knew my time was coming."
Welnel showcased his acclimation in Montana's two spring games, both of which were his first official starts. In his new role, Welnel built confidence and experience, all of which led up to Saturday's performance against Washington where he had 12 total tackles, one sack and the game-sealing interception.
After UM allowed Washington's lone touchdown on the first drive of the drive, Welnel and the rest of the Grizzlies settled in and shut the Huskies down the rest of the way.
"The first drive was a little rough. You go back and watch the film, I did some things wrong so you could say maybe I did have some little nerves on that first drive," Welnel said. "But once I did get locked in, kind of sat down on the bench, realized, 'Alright, I'm in this thing now,' it was good."
For his effort, Welnel was named the Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week, and showed just how far he's grown as he patiently waited for his opportunity.
"Just getting used to the speed of college football and just knowing exactly what I have to do on each play," Welnel said of the biggest adjustments during his time at UM so far. "Because different pass concepts, different run concepts, knowing exactly this d-line is going to fit here, safety is going to be here so where do I have to go. That was the biggest part when I first got here. In high school you kind of just run to the ball and make the tackle, here you have to fit in the right spot and know where you’re supposed to go."
Montana's defense as a unit lived up to the hype against Washington with Saturday's performance. The Griz defense held Washington to just 291 total yards while forcing three interceptions and tallying three sacks.
"It just shows all of the hard work we put in the offseason and the training camp and all of the talented people we have on defense and if we all play hard, do our jobs, we can do some pretty cool things," Welnel said.
Jace Lewis grew up not far from Welnel in nearby Townsend.
Couple that with Patrick O'Connell who hails from Kalispell, the two were already vets at linebacker with Montana's defense, and knew it wouldn't be long before Welnel also broke out in a big way as the all-Montana linebacking group and the rest of Montana's defense gave a memorable performance against UW.
"He’s 30 miles up the road from me too so it’s even that much more cool and all three of us are from Montana so it is cool to see him come up," Lewis said. "I knew he would. Coach (Kent) Baer coaches us hard and he gets everybody ready to go and it’s cool to see Marcus come out and play and have the game that he did. I don't think anybody ever doubted him. He's a great kid, in the weight room he's pushing weight. He's a competitor and it's fun playing next to him and Pat. I trust them with everything I have. He keeps me going, I keep him going, and Pat keeps all of us going so it's cool to see."