MISSOULA — As Montana cornerbacks Dareon Nash and Kadeem Hemphill waited on the sideline after the team’s scrimmage on Friday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, head coach Bobby Hauck walked over and gave some love to the upperclassmen.
“Game breakers,” Hauck exclaimed to two of his defenders who came up with big plays. “That is a game-breaking play.”
Nash, who earned a starting job at cornerback last year, has been working on improving his speed and physical play as he gears up for his redshirt junior season. His speed showed on one of those game-breaking plays, a field goal block in which he got a late call to make an all-out rush.
Nash sprinted off the left edge and batted down the ball on Gabe Peppenger’s 50-yard field goal attempt. Redshirt junior Gavin Crow snagged the ball out of the air and returned it for a touchdown.
While the block was a special teams play, Hauck said field goals are more of an offense-versus-defense situation than actual special teams.
Nash spent last season learning the new defense Hauck brought with him in his return to Montana. This year, as he understands the system better, he feels he's able to play quicker in it.
“I feel like playing faster and having that IQ of like a senior,” said Nash, who nearly had an interception as he stepped in front of a receiver. “So I felt like I was playing faster a lot.”
Nash also feels he’s taking on a larger leadership role among the cornerbacks, a group that features returning starter Justin Calhoun, who switched from wide receiver last season, but could use more depth. He can show that leadership by playing more physical, which is something he’s worked on improving.
“I feel like physical-ness, actually throwing it in there,” Nash said. “Corners don’t really get to hit a lot. Obviously, you saw Kadeem (Hemphill) hit today. So, I just try to throw it in there. Kind of proving that we could hit a little more.”
Hemphill, a senior walk-on, displayed that smart, physical play to close the scrimmage as he was targeted on four of the final five snaps. Playing in a cover-2 defense, he broke up three passes by making a big hit on Gabe Sulser or stepping in front of him to bat down the ball. He also tipped another that was intercepted by Nash Fouch.
The performance left at least one fan sitting in the stands asking, “Who’s No. 27?”
For the walk-on who’s at his fourth school, it’s all about trying to earn a scholarship by proving he belongs and can help the team. He also had some added motivation on Friday.
“When I was out there on the series before, I just envisioned it, you know what I’m saying,” Hemphill recounted afterward. “A lot of things were going through my mind. I was thinking, you all know like (rapper) Nipsey Hussle, he just passed away, and I was just thinking, you know, like about him and like just how motivating he is. And just a lot of stuff.
“I was thinking about my grandma. My grandma, she’s been going through some illnesses and stuff. So I just knew the second I stepped on the field, I knew it was coming my way. So, a lot of plays, and I was happy I had a chance to make a opportunity and make some plays, you know.”
Other cornerbacks who made plays were senior Kobey Eaton, who had an interception against fourth-string quarterback Wheeler Harris, and junior Josh Egbo, who had two pass breakups.
The competitiveness between the cornerbacks and receivers is an area Nash feels Hauck emphasizes.
"Receivers, DBs, we compete every day, and it's almost like we brag about it in our locker room, so it's kind of the thing that gets your ego going," Nash said.
The physical play by the Griz, beyond just the cornerbacks, stood out to Hauck.
“I think they’re playing hard,” he said speaking generally about the team. “I think it’s physical. So, that’s a pretty good base to start with when you’re trying to build next year’s team. Obviously, the execution part, some of the mistakes and some of those things are not where we want them to be or need them to be.”
‘We won the day’
Dalton Sneed, the Grizzlies’ returning starter at quarterback, made a brief appearance at the start of the scrimmage before standing on the sideline while Hauck had the three backup quarterbacks take reps. Sneed ran for 2 yards on a fourth-and-1 on his first play and threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Louie-McGee over the middle on his second and final snap.
With Sneed out, the defense had an upper hand against less experienced signal callers.
“I feel like it was a good day for us overall,” Nash said. “It’s usually like back and forth, offense, defense, but I felt like we won today, honestly.”
Sophomore linebacker Patrick O’Connell, a Glacier grad, recovered a fumbled snap and ran it back for a 47-yard touchdown.
True freshman linebacker Cole Grossman and defensive linemen Alex Gubner, Eli Alford and Lorenzo Brown each had a sack. The offensive line was called for three false starts.
The offense made its share of plays, too. Redshirt freshman Drew Turner, a Glacier grad, broke away from contact near the line of scrimmage on a fourth-and-1 play and turned it into a 41-yard touchdown run down the right sideline.
Sophomore wide receiver Gabe Sulser, a Billings Senior grad, had three defenders trying to tackle him after a short reception, but he broke free and turned it into a 15-yard gain.
Backup quarterback Cam Humphrey pinpointed a pass to wide receiver Sammy Akem, who snagged the ball against the right sideline for a 29-yard gain.
Sophomore wide receiver Malik Flowers made a 33-yard grab in between two defenders on a ball thrown by redshirt freshman Garrett Graves. The gain was crucial in setting up a 44-yard field goal attempt, which Brandon Purdy made on a day in which he went 4-for-4 with makes from 31, 28 and 22 yards.
“I think Malik Flowers in our group has really stepped up, made some big catches,” said sophomore wide receiver Mitch Roberts, a Sentinel grad. “Obviously, Dalton’s been playing pretty well for us. Gabe Sulser also. Sammy (Akem). I think our group overall has just really stepped up. I think we’ve grown from last spring a ton. So, yeah, it’s good to see.”
Nash had some props for the wide receivers.
“They’ve been playing good. I give that to them,” he said. “But I don’t look at the past. I feel like we won today.”
As for the overall scrimmage, Hauck was pleased with some aspects but not others.
“I thought some of it was OK and some of it looked not ready for prime time,” he said. “So, probably good we don’t have to play this week.”