MISSOULA — The road less traveled has been a fruitful one for Omar Hicks Onu and Justin Ford.
The duo have been major cogs for Montana's defensive machine to start the 2021 season. Both cornerbacks sport a similar trajectory as FBS transfers who found a home with the Grizzlies and have since stepped up in the secondary on a defense that is currently riding a 115-minute-plus shutout streak.
"I never played for a team like this," Hicks Onu said. "Everybody is very team-oriented. Nobody tries to single themselves out, there’s no individuals, we play for the Griz. You don’t play for the name on the back of your jersey, you play for the name on the front on your jersey, so it’s just real fun out there."
For Hicks Onu, his college journey began back in 2015 when he arrived at Oregon State and redshirted. Injury derailed his 2018 season with the Beavers, and eventually he transferred to Montana in January of 2020.
Everyone knows the story from there, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe in March of 2020 and Montana's fall season was eventually postponed to the spring of 2021, which the Grizzlies ultimately opted out of. Instead, UM played two spring games against Central Washington and Portland State, where Hicks Onu started at corner and finally got the chance to showcase his talent on the defensive side of the ball. Plus, he slid into a leadership role as well.
"It's just natural. When you play the game for so long, you see certain things and you got young guys, you want to help. You want to see everyone build," Hicks Onu said. "One thing that I heard a couple years ago was you want to leave a place better than when you came so I'm just trying to help lead and hopefully help lead the young guys to being great starters one day."
So far this year, Hicks Onu has 12 total tackles and a pass breakup through two games .
It's been a long winding road for the Texas native, and a long wait with Montana, but he's battled through it to make an impact.
"To sum it up with one word, I’d just say adversity but when adversity strikes you got to get through it," Hicks Onu said. "Just a fighter. You got to get through it so just wake up everyday grateful that I can play this sport still and thank God and just keep attacking."
Ford joined Montana from Louisville last summer thanks to a previous relationship he made with the Griz coaching staff. He spent one season at Louisville after two years at Golden West Community College in California.
"So coming up before I transferred to Louisville, I had already talked to Montana previously so I knew it’s a blue-collar mentality here and that’s kind of what I present," Ford said. "It’s a football town so bringing me in was kind of easy, the town is all about football and so am I so I think we’re on the same page there."
So Ford made the trek across the country to Missoula to begin his next football step.
"Football is what I want to do so I'd do what is required for it, and anything," Ford said. "So I knew the move was something that I needed to do and I just got to lock in and do what I'm here to do which is play great football, physical, fly around and be a team player."
The North Carolina native became a fan favorite in the spring thanks to his big hits and infectious energy, which has been on full display every play. In the spring he racked up nine total tackles, a pass breakup and has added five more tackles in the fall.
"I play with passion for sure. My situation is bigger for me, I play for me, my family and now my teammates so I guess you just see that on the field," Ford said. "I wear my heart on my sleeve so no emotion has been held in. That’s just me, that’s my true self.
"I love it and it makes me play better. I feel like the more trash I talk, the more I have to hold up on my end. You can't talk trash and get beat so I feel like it helps my gameplan out and I see it help my teammates and build the energy for everybody."
This fall, the Griz secondary has been efficient with Hicks Onu, Ford and the rest of the defense, and UM has allowed just 337 total passing yards through two games.
It's been an unconventional road across the country to join Montana for Ford. And like his fellow corner in Hicks Onu, there's one word he'd use to describe it.
"I’ll definitely call it adversity and the type of guy I am, I love it," Ford said. "It just makes you have to rise to the occasion and I feel like I’ve done it, I feel like I can continue to do it, and I like being here. I feel like it’s a great opportunity to go win something big with this team and that’s why hard work and dedication is for all of us.
"When you work hard and adversity hits and you continue to beat it, it's like the greatest feeling ever. It makes you want to do those little things again and again because you know the bigger situation is going to pay off."