By ERIC TABER
For over three years, Montana football fans have watched as two of the finest defensive linemen to ever pull on the maroon and silver dominated their way through the Big Sky Conference, and in the case of Tyrone Holmes, earned the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year award after leading the nation in sacks.
The 2016 Grizzlies will once again boast one of the nation’s best D-lineman in second-year starter, and second-year heir to the #37 throne, Caleb Kidder.
That much, Griz fans know. Kidder has been all over the news this fall, getting the nod as preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-conference honors, STATS FCS preseason All-American honors, and a place on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list. These, along with numerous other preseason All-American tips-of-the-hat from FCS media outlets like College Sports Madness and HERO Sports, on top of a first-team All-Big Sky award as a junior.
The amazing thing is: Kidder, 2016’s leading returning tackler as a D-tackle, is earning these preseason honors while moving to a new primary position on the field and undertaking a new set of responsibilities as a defensive end.
What fans may not realize is Kidder has a supporting cast of teammates on this season’s D-line that is shaping up to be one of the deepest and most complete units within the 2016 Grizzly defense.
While Kidder will play a central role in leading the D-line this season, first-year defensive coordinator Jason Semore has built a group that brings 15 starts and over 75 appearances worth of experience from last season. That in-game knowledge is paired with increased size, strength and fresh blood brought in specifically to bolster the inside gaps.
“It’s one of the more experienced groups we have in terms of guys who have started games,” says Semore. “My expectation for them really comes from a leadership standpoint. Those guys who have played a lot. Zach Peevey, Kidder, Ryan Johnson, Tucker Schye, those are guys who have seen live bullets, and I expect them to set the tone in practice and on game day.”
Moving Kidder from D-tackle to D-end was a calculated move by Semore, and one the redshirt senior from Helena Capital has relished in the offseason, dropping nearly 20 pounds and shedding nearly every ounce of body fat to become a lean, mean, pass-rushing machine.
Having a player like Kidder at his disposal adds an element multiplicity to the Grizzly defense, allowing Semore to show different looks and schemes, depending on what the offense is presenting. He can play inside (after all, he posted 82 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss as a D-tackle), and with his newfound speed and agility, can rush the edge with dangerous speed, tenacity and toughness.
“There isn’t another tackle in the country who was even close to having the number of tackles, TFLs, that kind of stuff, that he had last year. He was also productive with some pretty bad injuries most of the year. I mean, he was getting sewed up every game at halftime from huge laceration on his calf. He’s tough,” says Semore.
“At this level, it’s unique to have a guy his size that can move like him. He can play at any level. He’s huge, moves fast, and he’s one of the hardest workers on the team.
“It helps us a lot because it allows us to be multiple on defense, and get in and out of a four-man or three-man front. The way we built the defense, his versatility is going to help us in the run game and the pass game, as compared to: ‘oh that’s just a guy who can rush the edge and that’s all he does’, ‘ya know. On run downs, he can get in there and play run D. On pass downs, he can get in there and rush the passer. So we’re trying to maximize his production so he can help us win because he’s a special player.”
Joining Kidder at the defensive end is fellow senior Ryan Johnson, a 6-3, 255-puond pass rusher out of Vancouver, Wash., who was one of UM’s most effective backups as a junior. “RJ” made two starts last season and played in all 13 contests, posting five sacks (the second most on the team behind Holmes), and 33 tackles.
Johnson has also put in serious hours during the offseason, increasing his strength while cutting over 10-percent body fat, making him a perfect fit for what Semore has planned for him on the defense.
“The way our defense moves, that boundary defensive end will sometimes have to stand up, play in space, drop in coverage, things like that. Ryan understands that and he’s built his body to maximize his performance,” added Semore.
“The great thing about that group is that there is competition. If Tucker Schye is your backup, you better perform every day in practice or you won’t have a job. So those guys are pushing each other.”
Schye, a 6-4, 240-pound redshirt junior defensive end out of Malta, was one of Montana’s breakout performers during spring ball, leading the team with three sacks in the spring game alone. He’s another Grizzly who is no stranger to playing time, making an appearance in all 13 games last season, picking up 14 tackles (five for a loss), 1.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick.
“He’s probably the most dynamic pass rusher we have as far as his twitch, athleticism and speed,” says Semore. “We’re going to double-train him a little bit at the boundary defensive end and the field defensive end. When you get in pictures where you need to sub or you want to set up the line a little differently, and do things like move Caleb inside, you can get Tucker and Ryan on the field at the same time.”
While Montana’s cup runneth over with talent on the outside of the D-line, the troops in the trenches have received a big boost in the past year as well.
Peevey, a Missoula Hellgate graduate is back, bringing 11 games worth of experience from last season. He’ll provide the ability to pass rush and clog the middle as well at tackle.
To add even more size to the tackle position, the Griz picked up two junior college transfers in the spring, beefing up the bodies the middle.
Brandt Davidson comes to UM from Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, and has shown that he will be a force for offensive lines to deal with this season, checking in to fall camp at 294-pounds.
“Brandt did a great job in the weight room this summer. He came a long way in terms of his conditioning,” says Semore. “He had a good spring, and he’s having a great fall camp, upping the number of snaps he can play.”
Adding heft to the D-line is another JC transfer, Myles Mckee-Osibodu (pronounced “Oh-shee-bow-do) out of Santa Ana College in California. McKee-Osibodu has also stood out during fall camp as a speedy and physical tackle that has the ability to stop the run game and pressure the passer.
While it’s impossible to replace Grizzly legends like Holmes and Zack Wagenmann, this year’s D-line is set to flourish under Semore’s new system, utilizing legends in-the-making like Kidder, Johnson and Schye. Fans will see the Montana defense looking different with nearly every snap of the ball, but should expect similar results from play to play. The results only physical play and an imposing will can create.