(Editor's note: This is the sixth in an eight-part series highlighting the position groups for the Montana Grizzlies football team. For Part 1 on the quarterbacks, click here. For Part 2 on the running backs, click here. For Part 3 on the wide receivers/tight ends, click here. For Part 4 on the offensive line, click here. For Part 5 on the defensive line, click here. For Part 7 on the defensive backs, click here. For Part 8 on the special teams unit, click here).
MISSOULA -- Experience is aplenty for the Montana football team at linebacker.
Jace Lewis and Patrick O’Connell are returning starters from Montana’s 2019 playoff run. Now added into the mix is new starter Marcus Welnel, who started both of UM's spring contests, and the UM linebacking corps is poised to pick up where they left off in 2019 as one of the most productive position groups on this Grizzly football team.
Welnel, a Helena Capital grad, was the backup to Griz great Dante Olson back in 2019. And that experience behind Olson has paid dividends now that he's in his new role.
"You know, playing behind Dante the last two years and kind of getting in every now and then was good," Welnel said. "I learned a lot of experience under him and then playing in the spring, finally getting to start again. It's cool because in high school you start and you're the guy, and then you're a backup for a while and then once you get to play it's different.
"I like it and I've learned a lot. The biggest thing I learned from (Olson) was how to play hard. I mean if you ever watch Dante’s film, he plays hard, so just learned how to play as hard as Dante."
Now entrenched in the starting lineup, Welnel has found his rhythm with Montana as he suits up alongside O'Connell and Lewis as a trio of homegrown Montanans who now start together for the Griz. In the spring, Welnel tallied 10 total tackles, 2.5 for loss, as well as an assisted sack.
"It is good to get a lot of plays and finally get a rhythm," Welnel said. "I haven’t been in a rhythm in a while playing football in a game so that was cool and (Lewis and O'Connell) are great playing alongside. I know each side of me or whatever side they’re on I know I can rely on them."
"Marcus is a guy that he’s really smart, he learns everything," O'Connell added. "He’s not afraid to ask questions so he’s been kind of developing himself into what he is right now and as you saw he did a great job in the spring, and if you come watch our practice he’s doing a heck of a job right now as well."
The Griz have had a recent string of star linebackers, from past Grizzlies in Olson and Josh Buss, to now Lewis and O'Connell. Lewis, a former walk-on from Townsend, was recently named preseason All-Big Sky again, and was awarded the legacy No. 37 jersey as well. In 2019, he finished with 131 total tackles, 12 for loss, and 4.5 sacks.
Like Lewis, O'Connell was another walk-on turned breakout star in 2019, and the Kalispell native led the Grizzlies in sacks with 6.5 that season. The Kalispell Glacier grad finished 2019 with 56 total tackles, 7.5 for loss as well.
Thanks to the group's depth and cohesion over the last several years, when a new player steps in, they're ready to contribute immediately.
"Our cohesion, it just comes natural," O'Connell said. "All of the linebackers, we kind of feed off of each other and I think that’s just how we work off each other because we know we’re a fast, physical group and we hold each other accountable to that standard. That’s really just how we work and we feed off each other."
Once again, UM is loaded at linebacker behind its starters. Players like Braxton Hill, Levi Janacaro, Michael Matthews, Tyler Flink, Ryan Tirrell and more figure to crack the rotation and see playing time during the season.
"The linebackers here have been good for a while so we keep growing," Welnel said. "You watch someone who is great, then someone else becomes great, and so on and you keep getting better and better. We're all just building off of each other, filling each other's shoes and trying to be better than the person ahead of us."
O'Connell said they'll earn the time they're given as this 2021 group of linebackers aim to carry the recent success at that position into the fall.
"They kind of work themselves in. They earn the time that they’re going to get and the respect that they get from coach and from the other players and everything so they’re working themselves in in the weight room, on the field, also in the classroom so everyone’s doing a good job of that," O'Connell said. "That’s why we’re so deep and everyone knows the standard that it takes to play linebacker at the University of Montana so I think that’s why we see such good depth there right now.
"The physicality of camp, the running around, the doing things right and holding each other accountable is what is making the (fall) camp so pristine right now. But, there's a lot of stuff we got to work on, but (so far) it's been going really good."
Griz linebackers on the 2021 roster by number
No. 10, Marcus Welnel, R-JR, 6-foot, 225 pounds, Helena, MT
No. 31, Geno Leonard, FR, 5-11, 230 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 33, Carson Rostad, FR, 6-3, 222 pounds, Hamilton, MT
No. 34, Asher Croy, FR, 6-0, 217 pounds, Bozeman, MT
No. 35, Braxton Hill, SO, 6-2, 225 pounds, Anaconda, MT
No. 36, Levi Janacaro, R-SO, 6-0, 235 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 37, Jace Lewis, R-SR, 6-1, 230 pounds, Townsend, MT
No. 38, Soren Syvrud, FR, 6-0, 189 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 44, Ryan Tirrell, R-FR, 6-2, 225 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 45, Chase Johansen, FR, 6-1, 215 pounds, Park City, UT
No. 52, Michael Matthews, R-JR, 6-2, 215 pounds, Camas, WA
No. 54, Tyler Flink, R-SO, 5-11, 227 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 58, Patrick O'Connell, 6-2, 225 pounds, Kalispell, MT