Fall Camp Report #9: Defensive Line

By DAVE GUFFEY

With the 2014 season opener at Wyoming looming just a week away, one thing that the University of Montana Grizzlies know about their football team is that the strength of the defense will be the defensive line, where the Grizzlies return three starters and two talented veterans, as well some up-and-coming young players.

“It’s an exceptional group,” said Griz defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Ty Gregorak.  “They’ve got size, speed, and work ethic, and they are extremely well-coached.  They have toughness as well, and they are the heart and soul of this defense.  They had an exceptional camp.”

That trio of returning starters includes senior defensive co-captains Tonga Takai (6-3, 305, 3V) and Zack Wagenmann (6-3 ½, 255, 3V), along with junior end Tyrone Holmes (6-4, 245, 2V).  Holmes and Wagenmann each started in all 13 games last season, while Takai had 11.

Wagenmann, a 2014 Buck Buchanan Award candidate, was named the Big Sky Conference’s preseason MVP on defense at end, has been a first team all-league pick the past two seasons, and led the Griz with 16.5 tackles for loss a year ago, and was fifth on the squad with 64 stops.

Zack Wagenmann (Photo by Todd Goodrich, UM)

Zack Wagenmann (Photo by Todd Goodrich,UM)

“We are blessed with, I honestly believe in my heart, the best D-line coach (Legi Suiaunoa) in the country,” said Wagenmann, who prepped a local Sentinel High School.  “He does a fantastic job working our technique, and he gets us to work hard in practice and carry that over into games.

“I am trying not to focus on all of the end-of-the year stuff , and all the preseason stuff – that’s just talk really, and I a more excited to get the season rolling and get on the field with my teammates,” said Wagenmann, who weighed around 205 pounds his freshman season at UM in 2010.  “We do have good team speed on defense.  The D-line runs very well.  The linebackers are lighter than they have been in the past and are very fast.  We want to be a defense that swarms to the ball and I think we are going to be able to do that.”

“Nothing would make me happier to see Zack have a productive, outstanding senior year,” Gregorak said.  “I just love Zack.  He’s a local guy from Missoula and we have back-to-back number 37’s (Jordan Tripp wore that legacy number last season) from here.  He’s an outstanding player.”

Takai, starting for the third straight season along with Wagenmann, was a third team all-conference selection at tackle last season, and is UM’s eighth leading returning tackler (32 TT).  Holmes was  honorable mention all-league a year ago, and is the team’s seventh leading returning tackler (37 TT).

“Tyrone Holmes I believe will have a breakout year,” Gregorak said.  “Last year he had a very solid year and his total tackles and sack numbers will go up after another season of experience.  And frankly, both him and Zack would tell you that they had some missed production last year, where they got home, but couldn’t finish the play.”

“We are excited to get started,” said Takai, who has dropped about 20 pounds since last season.  “We put in a lot of work in the off-season and throughout fall camp and we are ready to go down to Laramie and play a good game.  I feel a lot better moving around and I feel a lot stronger this year, thanks to coach ‘Gerbs’ (Mike Gerber, UM’s strength coach) strength and conditioning.  I feel like I’ve elevated my game a lot more and I hope to have a good season.

“Unfortunately, I have to,” said a smiling Takai, who is a reserved person and does not like doing interviews, when asked if he would be more vocal this year since he is a co-captain – “so yes, I will.”

Tonga Takai (Photo by Todd Goodrich, UM)

Tonga Takai (Photo by Todd Goodrich,UM)

“Tonga Takai – I am just happy to see him be recognized of having the potential to be a guy who is an All-American candidate for us,” Gregorak said.  “He has come a long way as a player, due to tremendous work ethic and personal drive.  I believe Tonga will have an All-American year.”

Senior Trevor Rehm (6-3, 265, 2v) and junior Caleb Kidder (6-5, 275, 2V) went head-to-head for the open starting job defensive tackle, with Rehm edging Kidder for that berth.  Rehm will take over for former starter Alex Bienemann, who was a second team All-Big Sky pick and UM’s seventh leading tackler with 51 stops his senior season, and will be a student-assistant coach for the Griz this year.

A Dillon native, Rehm has improved steadily every season, and he was moved from linebacker to the line as a redshirt freshman.  He played in all 13 games a year ago and had 24 stops, and is the team’s 10th-leading returning tackler.  Kidder also played in all 13 games last season and started in two, and is UM’s fourth leading returning tackler (40 TT).

“Moving inside, the defensive tackle position has been great competition,” Gregorak said.  “Caleb Kidder would probably start at every school in the Big Sky, and that’s a real compliment to Trevor Rehm to win the starting job there.  Trevor had an exceptional camp.”

At end, juniors Derek Crittenden (6-3, 240, 2V) and Addison Owen (6-2, 225, 2V, from Vancouver, Wash.), and sophomore Ryan Johnson (6-2 ½, 255, SQ) will contribute.  At tackle, sophomore Zach Peevey (6-2 ½, 255, 1V) and redshirt freshman Nate Bradley (5-10, 260, from Billings) will both be in the rotation on the D-line.

Crittenden, from Whitefish, is the Grizzlies’ third leading returning (tied) tackler with 41 stops last season, despite not starting.  Peevey, from local Hellgate High School was the most improved  player on the D-line in fall camp, and will get plenty of reps.  Johnson (Vancouver, Wash.) has also looked good.

“Zach Peevey showed up all of the camp – he really did,” Gregorak said.  “He’s very productive when he’s in there.  We need to reduce his mental errors a little bit, but boy he’s been so solid when he’s gotten his turns.  Nate Bradley has done a nice job, and Nate is very strong, and has been solid there too.

“Going back to the ends, Addison Owen missed the spring and was been limited in fall camp as he is recovers from off-season surgery, but he’s such a good athlete he will help us by rushing the passer and using his outstanding speed,” Gregorak said.  “RJ (Johnson) is a vert steady-eddy for us.  Derek Crittenden is obviously one of the brightest players on the football team, with a 4.0, and probably will be the next Montana football player who is a Rhodes Scholar.

“I can’t say enough about the D-line and their camp,” Gregorak continued.  “Coach Legi does a great job with them.  He has them always working on their technique, and as I said earlier, they will lead our defense.  If all of them can stay healthy, that group will help to get us to an outstanding year.”

GRIZ NOTES: The team will be staying in Cheyenne on Friday and will not have a walk-though at Wyoming’s Stadium that day.  Seventy players will make the trip this weekend.  The last time Montana opened a season on the road against an FBS opponent was in 2011, a 42-16 loss at Tennessee.

GRIZ STATS & FACTS: Wagenmann was 27th in the FCS in tackles for loss last season with 1.3 per game.  He is currently ranked ninth (tied with Tripp) in school history with 29.5 career tackles for loss, and he’s eight in career sacks with 20.

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