Griz secondary is fairly inexperienced and young, but shows a lot of promise

Sophomore CB Josh Dennard

Sophomore CB Josh Dennard

Aug. 16, 2012

The University of Montana defense was hit hard by graduation, and with three-plus starters gone from the secondary, the starters and key back-ups at the safety and cornerback positions this season will consist a couple of experienced players, along with some up-and-coming young players.

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, a rare four-year starter, has graduated and is now playing for the St. Louis Rams. Also gone are starting cornerback Houston Roots and starting strong safety Mike McCord. McCord is currently a student football coach at UM this season. Also gone from last season is versatile cornerback and special teams standout Donny Lisowski, who was recently cut by the Seattle Seahawks.

The only other players with starting experience are a pair of safeties, junior Bo Tully (6-2, 195, from Mead High School in Spokane) and Matt Hermanson (6-1, 192, from Washington High School in Sioux Falls, S.D.).

Tully started the last eight games of the season and was the Grizzlies' eighth leading tackler (tied with 52 stops). Hermanson was Montana's fifth-leading tackler with 65 stops, despite just one start a year ago as a true freshman.

CORNERBACK (Field) Redshirt freshman Nate Harris (5-10, 180, from Chino Hills High School, Chino, Calif.) and sophomore Josh Dennard (5-11, 180, from Brophy Prep in Phoenix, Ariz.) are two young, but very promising players.

Harris, who has the inside track for a starting job right now, was a first team All-C.I.F. pick at defensive back and running back his senior year in high school. Dennard, who was recently injured in fall camp, played wide receiver and excelled on special teams last season as a true freshman. Last year Dennard had 4 receptions, including an 18-yard touchdown grab against Weber State, along with 8 tackles on special teams.



"I have been very excited about the way the corners have been playing," said Griz defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Ty Gregorak. "Josh Dennard suffered an injury (which is day-to-day) a couple of days ago, which was very unfortunate for us, because he was making some really, really nice strides. Nate Harris has done an excellent job. I think he's going to be a very good player for us.

"Like I said about the defensive line (which was in part one of a three part defensive series on the Griz defense that was posted on this past Tuesday, Aug. 14), the corner position, other than Sean (Murray) is just not very game-tested at this point," Gregorak said. "Nate's having a very good fall camp, and I'd like to see him continue to come on. He's got to become an every-day, every-down, consistent guy for us a ton. We need to get Josh back, because he will help us. When you watched Josh play on special teams last year, he really got into the mix, and he would throw his body around and make plays."

CORNERBACK (Boundary) Junior Sean Murray (6-1, 195, from Santiago High School in Corona, Calif.), is UM's "veteran," having played in 21 career games, and is expected to start at the boundary corner spot. Last season he had 23 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Transfer Anthony "Chief" Goodwin (6-1, 190, Jr., a junior college transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, whose hometown is Murrieta, Calf.). Goodwin and Dennard will not only see action at corner, but they will also play in UM's nickle defensive package.

"Sean has the ability, now he's just got to go do it," Gregorak said. "He's a very talented kid. He's just got to become a prime time guy for us. He just does. Overall, we just have to become a more consistent group at this position.

"Anthony Goodwin is a rangy, lanky, nice athlete, who has spent the first part of fall camp figuring out the system a little bit," Gregorak said. "Coach (Aric) Williams (the Grizzlies' cornerbacks coach) has been working a ton on technique. Corner is such a technique position. We try to help them a lot with our zone stuff, but there isn't a position on our defense that requires as much athleticism and technique.

"Anthony's going to play for us, as will Josh, and I just hope that they both continue to improve, and in turn, compete for starting jobs," Gregorak continued. "Our best players are going to play at all of our positions on defense, whether they're a freshman or they're a senior."

STRONG SAFETY Tully, who played as a true freshman, has emerged as the starter at strong safety. Connor Lebsock (6-2, 198, from Billings' Skyview High School) would have probably played last season as a true freshman, but was injured in fall camp and missed the season. He will definitely see a lot "PT" this season. Lebsock was a two-time all-state pick at safety as a prep.

Also in the mix at strong safety are redshirt freshman Adam DeBruckyer (6-1, 195 from Choteau High School, Mont.) and is Jacob Coogan, a 6-2, 205-pound junior from Southwestern Junior College (San Diego, Calif.).

"Bo has had a good camp so far, and he is a physical player at that position," Gregorak said. "He plays smart, but he needs to get a little more consistent for us in reading plays, which I know he will do.

"Connor, he's kind of a hybrid a little bit to me, in that I think, although that I am not certain, that some day he will play outside linebacker for us," Gregorak said. "But right now he's at safety and he will play a lot for us.

FREE SAFETY Hermanson had an exceptional season as a true freshman, and he's expected to be a standout this year. Junior Steven Rominger (5-10, 186, from Missoula's Sentinel High School) has been a solid special teams player at Montana the past couple of seasons, and is expected to see action at safety in 2012.

Two other players who may contribute are redshirt freshman Zach Gratton (6-1, 185, from Billings Senior High School) and true freshman Herbert Gamboa (6-1, 215, from San Clemente High School, Calif.). Gratton was an all-state player as a senior in high school and missed last season due to an injury. Gamboa is one of the faster players on the team (10.71 in the 100 meters), and was moved from linebacker to safety prior to the start of fall drills.

"We brought Jacob into play right away, and Zach Gratton was doing some good things for us, but he got hurt," Gregorak said. (Both Coogan and Gratton's injuries are day-to-day).

"Going back to Bo and Matt - they are our most experienced players at safety, but Bo is going into his true junior year and Matt is going into his true sophomore year," Gregorak said. "Connor is a redshirt freshman and Steve has played mostly on special teams. I do think they are a young talented group, but they need to keep pushing and grinding through this week, and next week we'll start really, really zeroing in on South Dakota."

"We think they (the safeties) have the ability to play and play well," said Leon Burnett, UM's safeties coach. "It's never bothered me to play young players. When I coached at Washington State we had two freshman come in for us from Texas, and they both started right away and played quite well. That's always been my philosophy. I don't worry about what year they are, I just worry about their athletic ability. My job as a coach is to put them in the right position to take advantage of their abilities.

"I think those four guys have pulled ahead, but I think Zach (Gratton) would be capable once he develops a little more," Burtnett said. "So we really have six guys who can play our safety positions, but a couple of them (Coogan and Gratton) have been injured, so we really haven't had a chance to look at them as much as we need to."

"We can say this about our first four safeties-they almost have to be right," Gregorak said. "They're talented and they're good athletes, but just a split second of indecision is the difference between going up and making the tackle immediately or having to make up some ground to make that tackle. I think coach Leon (Burtnett) has done an excellent job with them in teaching them how to read backfield and receiver sets.

NOTE: This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the Griz defense. Next up: Griz linebackers.

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