(Editor's note: This is the seventh 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 6 on the linebackers, click here. For Part 8 on the special teams unit, click here).
MISSOULA -- Montana’s defensive backs are another position group with a good mix of returning veterans and new faces, and with a lot of that talent rotating into the mix, Montana’s secondary figures to have a huge impact with this Grizzly defense.
With veteran groups at safety and cornerback, the defensive backs have been able to pick up where they left off in the spring after holding both Central Washington and Portland State to less than 200 yards passing each game.
Safety Robby Hauck said they've been able to build off of that momentum during fall camp.
"(Defensive backs) as a whole, we work a lot together, so just becoming a fluid unit and becoming one has been big in this offseason," Hauck said. "When you play, it can be a lot faster when everybody is on the same page, and less thinking and we’re able to make more plays."
Hauck, Gavin Robertson, and Nash Fouch return as Montana's three starting safeties. Fouch played primarily behind former Grizzly Josh Sandry in 2019 while Robertson and Hauck started all year. Robertson, who transferred to UM from Arizona before the 2018 season, tallied 72 total tackles in 2019 and has three picks to his name in his Griz career. Meanwhile Hauck, who was named preseason All-Big Sky, tallied 129 total tackles in 2019 along with three sacks and one interception.
But added into the mix at corner back are Omar Hicks Onu and Justin Ford, both FBS transfers who didn't get a chance to play a game as Grizzlies until this past April's spring games, reps that went a long way once they got them.
"Those reps were crucial because, you know, I’ve been here for a year and a half, and I didn’t really get to play much ball when I first got here," Hicks Onu said. "So going through spring ball, then fall camp, then spring ball again, you know it was getting tiring so those reps in the spring in those two games were crucial."
Hicks Onu joined UM from Oregon State in January 2020 while the hard-hitting Ford transferred to UM from Louisville last summer.
The duo have mixed in with Corbin Walker as the top options at corner, and through the long waiting process found a way to make immediate impacts on UM's defense. Fellow OSU transfer TraJon Cotton and freshmen Autjoe Soe and Trevin Gradney have also impressed.
But even though newer to UM, Hicks Onu and Ford finally showcased their veteran savvy once they played in the spring.
"I think we’re acclimating well because at the end of the day we’re two competitors, you know what I mean?" Hicks Onu said. "We don’t want to be on the sidelines so we’re coming out here everyday, working our tails off and as a group, I feel like everybody in the room is capable of starting. Everyday you got to be on your best, you got to be on your 10 toes because it could be the last day with the ones so you just got to make sure you’re grinding."
Suiting up alongside UM's veteran safeties also helped in that process.
"It's fun man, I love playing with them because they communicate, they love football and they'll die for it," Hicks Onu said. "Every snap I get with them, I cherish it for real."
"I love those guys," Hauck added. "They're playmakers. It's fun to have a good aggressive group in the corners and I'm very excited to see how they play and it's a lot of fun playing alongside of them."
Now that the group has those live game reps together, Hauck said fall camp is about continuing to find and use that continuity as the regular season continues to inch closer.
"Everybody getting on the same page, I think that’s for the secondary in general, that’s a big thing because if guys in the secondary make mistakes usually it’s easy to see whether it’s a big catch or a big run, so just communicating and making sure everybody is on the same page and then also just taking the ball. The ball is the issue and getting it back to our offense so we can score."
Griz defensive backs on the 2021 roster by number
No. 2, Gavin Robertson, R-SR, 6-1, 215 pounds, Auburn, WA
No. 4, Nash Fouch, R-SO, 6-2, 205 pounds, Woodinville, WA
No. 5, Garrett, Graves, R-SO, 6-3, 205 pounds, Eureka, MT
No. 6, Jackson Pepe, R-SO, 6-0, 198 pounds, Kalispell, MT
No. 9, David Koppang, R-SO, 6-0, 194 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 11, Gabe Longin, FR, 5-11, 190 pounds, Great Falls, MT
No. 13, Ryder Meyer, R-FR, 5-9, 180 pounds, Fairfield, MT
No. 17, Robby Hauck, R-JR, 5-10, 185 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 19, Padraig Lang, FR, 6-1, 185 pounds, Bozeman, MT
No. 24, TJ Rausch, FR, 6-3, 190 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 25, Jaxon Lee, FR, 6-1, 210 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 39, Jace Klucewich, FR, 5-10, 175 pounds, Frenchtown, MT
No. 0, Omar Hicks Onu, R-SR, 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Lewisville, TX
No. 3, TraJon Cotton, R-SO, 6-1, 204 pounds, Sacramento, CA
No. 7, Dylan Simmons, FR, 6-0, 180 pounds, Metaire, LA
No. 8, Corbin Walker, SO, 5-11, 180 pounds, Renton, WA
No. 21, Justin Ford, R-JR, 6-2, 190 pounds, Concord, NC
No. 23, Autjoe Soe, FR, 6-1, 170 pounds, Murray, UT
No. 27, Trevin Gradney, R-FR, 6-0, 180 pounds, Billings, MT