MISSOULA — Coming off of last year's performance, Montana's defense is expected to be one of the best in the FCS again this season. Included in that unit is a group that always seems to reload, and that's the linebackers, who are chock full of homegrown talent.
Leading the way for UM's linebackers will be senior Patrick O'Connell, a Kalispell native who was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award a year ago.
Coming into this season, O'Connell was named the Big Sky preseason Defensive Player of the Year after his All-American campaign a year ago, a season in which he finished with 105 total tackles, 22 for loss, 14 sacks, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
He's joined by returning starter Marcus Welnel, who came up with a number of big plays for the Grizzlies in his first major minutes in what was a breakout season for him. Welnel racked up 94 total tackles, 12.5 for loss, eight sacks and three interceptions in 2021.
"There's just a lot of experience," Welnel said. "All of those guys who got All-American or all-conference honors. There's a lot of experience, we've all played together for so long with the COVID year so it's just going to be fun to get one more go at it and we all know how we play with each other, we all know how hard and physical we play so it'll be fun."
Joining those two as the third starter at linebacker will likely be Anaconda native Braxton Hill, a junior who was a rotational player a year ago but is now the next in line for an expanded role as he aims to join what's been a string of talented linebackers for the Grizzlies.
"It's a really cool thing to be able to do," said Hill, who tallied 27 total tackles, 3.5 for loss and two sacks in 2021. "In the offseason, coach just said you need to get better and you need to attack every day. There's really no reason to look ahead too far because nothing's really happened. Tried to have a good summer lifting and running and just try to come here and be in shape and attack practice each and every day."
Hill's mentality remains the same in his game as he preps to join the Grizzly starters.
"Last year, coming in you give it 100% (each time) you play," Hill said. "Someone could go down, someone could have a hurt hamstring, helmet comes off, so you need to be ready. I would say I have the same approach just trying to get better each and every day and just trying to be smarter from the neck up and a little more physical and play harder than I did the day before."
Past the starters, it's another deep group on defense for Montana, with Levi Janacaro (15 total tackles, blocked punt and touchdown), Michael Matthews (13 total tackles, three for loss and 1.5 sacks), Tyler Flink (13 total tackles), Ryan Tirrell (blocked punt) and more are expected to fill out that position group.
Linebacker has always been deep for the Griz, and it's a position with a lot of Montana natives who made the switch from other positions out of high school and are now seeing their work in college pay off.
"I think it shows how important coaching is," O'Connell said. "For them to trust guys from other positions to move in and make plays is pretty important and then you got to have a lot of confidence. I think our group has a lot of confidence to go out and make those plays that they trust us to make. That's one of the most important things is confidence and just growing yourself and helping others along the way."
Griz linebackers on the 2022 roster by number
No. 10, Marcus Welnel, R-SR, 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, Helena, MT
No. 31, Geno Leonard, R-FR, 5-foot-11, 224 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 33, Carson Rostad, SO, 6-foot-3, 221 pounds, Hamilton, MT
No. 34, Asher Croy, SO, 6-foot-0, 219 pounds, Bozeman, MT
No. 35, Braxton Hill, JR, 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, Anaconda, MT
No. 36, Levi Janacaro, R-JR, 6-foot-0, 237 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 38, Marcus Evans, FR, 6-foot-0, 217 pounds, Helena, MT
No. 44, Ryan Tirrell, R-SO, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 45, Vincent Genatone, FR, 6-foot-1, 213 pounds, North Platte, NE
No. 46, Wyatt Wegener, R-FR, 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, Algona, IA
No. 49, Cooper Walton, FR, 6-foot-1, 216 pounds, Johnstown, CO
No. 52, Michael Matthews, R-SR, 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, Camas, WA
No. 54, Tyler Flink, R-JR, 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, Missoula, MT
No. 58, Patrick O'Connell, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Kalispell, MT