MISSOULA — Montana senior Kadeem Hemphill and his twin brother Jalen Hemphill have always had each other, even as their addresses have changed.
They’ve played football together every season since they started at 8 years old, moving from one coast to the other with stops in between while going to four high schools and four colleges.
But that won’t be the case this season since Jalen left the team after spring camp and is in New York with his family.
So while Kadeem is approaching his final season focused on himself and the team, the cornerback keeps his brother in mind as he tries to make the most of his lone season suiting up for the Griz.
“It feels like he’s here still,” Kadeem said after Tuesday’s practice, the seventh of fall camp. “I’m doing it for him as well because I know how bad he wants to be out here and how bad he wants to be playing. I’m doing this for him and my whole family and just trying to make an impact. I’m making plays for me and him.”
The Griz could use the impact from the 6-foot, 190-pound Hemphill as he tries to add depth at cornerback or take over a starting spot. They return both starters in Dareon Nash and Justin Calhoun, although they were new to cornerback as converted receivers and are still learning themselves.
Hemphill has been practicing primarily with the second-team defense during fall camp. He got to jump in with the first-team defense Tuesday, lining up opposite of Nash and breaking up a pass to go with the six he had through the first six practices.
Montana coach Bobby Hauck said the key for Hemphill is making plays on a consistent basis.
“At corner, the ball has got potential to come to your spot every play, run or pass,” Hauck said. “You have to learn to play with that edge. You have to embrace that. That’s where (Kadeem’s) continuing to make improvements.”
Last year, Kadeem transferred from San Jose State to Montana, the latest stop in a crisscrossing journey of the country. Born in North Carolina, his family moved to Detroit, California and back to Detroit. He and Jalen began high school in Chicago, continued it in California, picked it up again in Chicago and graduated in California, living in Chicago with their mom and in California with their grandfather when their mom was working outside the country.
They both attended Army to play football and redshirted their first year before transferring to Santa Rosa Junior College in California. From there, they went off to San Jose State, where Kadeem redshirted behind a deep group of cornerbacks and eventually moved to safety.
Kadeem was going to attend Division II Wayne State in Detroit before the Griz offered him a walk-on spot alongside his brother last season. He was eligible to play as an FBS dropdown, but since he joined the team so late in fall camp, he said the coaches decided to sit him out.
“Sitting out a year didn’t bother me,” Hemphill said. “I wanted to come in here and work. This year is the year for me.”
One year later, Hemphill feels like he can play faster after spending the spring taking a deep dive into the playbook to learn alignments, assignments and how to work with the safeties. He had six interceptions during the spring camp, he said, and came onto the scene when he was targeted on four of the final five plays during a scrimmage and didn’t allow a catch.
During the summer and fall, Hemphill has continued working on his endurance to play all four quarters. He’s also trying to be better at wrapping up defenders to tackle them.
A self-described aggressive and physical player, those aspects of his play have shined through to Nash and Calhoun.
“As a corner, they’re not really known as hitters. He’s willing to hit and put his nose in there,” Nash said.
Added Calhoun: “He’s making a lot of plays on the ball. He’s locating the ball well and batting the ball down and driving on routes.”
While Hemphill is working on helping the defense, he’s also trying to earn a scholarship. As motivation, he keeps tabs of when the first tuition payment of the semester is due by writing on his right wrist the number of days until then. On Tuesday, that number was 40.
“There’s a lot of guys out here working hard for it,” Hemphill said. “I’d like to be able to earn one, and that’s the biggest word for me is earning one.
“I’m just trying to make a difference for the team. I’m trying to be big factor for this team. Whatever they need me to do, I’m willing to do that — special teams and the whole nine.”
Calhoun and Nash are back for year two as cornerbacks after having converted from receiver and starting last year.
Calhoun is focusing on improving his tackling after finishing seventh on the team with 56 tackles. He added six pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble as he started to learn to read the quarterback, not keep his eyes on the quarterback too long and make plays when the ball is in the air.
“I’m starting to feel more comfortable and starting to get a feel for it,” the 5-foot-10, 184-pound Calhoun said. “I feel like a real corner now.”
He’s continuing to work on his technique and footwork as a press corner and on becoming a more complete corner by being better at playing off the line of scrimmage.
“It’s still very tough to play off coverage,” Calhoun said. “I’m more comfortable in press, but I’m working on off every day. I’m just trying to focus on it more because I know I have the problem of looking at the quarterback too long.”
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Nash tied for the team lead with two interceptions to go with his 24 tackles, seven pass breakups and one fumble recovery. He’s continued to focus on making plays when the ball is in the air by attacking it before it gets to the receiver.
“I feel like I’m playing more comfortable,” Nash said. “I feel like I’m more relaxed in the defense. I had a year under my belt learning defense, so I feel more confident playing faster. It helps tremendously not having to think so much because when you think, you slow down.”
Hauck has noticed their increased comfortability in their role on the field.
“I think it’s just comfort level, both schematically and technically,” Hauck said of their biggest strides from last year. “I just think they’re much more comfortable with what they’re doing.”
Returning starting quarterback Dalton Sneed split first-team reps nearly evenly with backup Cam Humphrey, handing off the ball and primarily throwing short and intermediate passes during 11-on-11 action.
Sophomore receiver Malik Flowers, who was an increased target Tuesday, had a touchdown reception on an intermediate pass from Garrett Graves in which he broke multiple tackles on his way to the end zone.
True freshman Corbin Walker had an interception that he returned for a touchdown.
Calhoun deflected a pass over the middle.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Ganoung saw first-team reps at right tackle.