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Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse runs the ball as Montana's Robby Hauck (17) and Patrick O'Connell (58) try to tackle him as MSU's Derryk Snell blocks during their game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Nov. 20, 2021.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Patrick O'Connell was named the Big Sky football preseason defensive MVP and is one of 12 players from Montana schools to earn preseason all-conference selections, which the Big Sky released Monday morning.

O'Connell is one of five Montana Grizzlies on the All-Big Sky team, while the Montana State Bobcats had a league-high seven selections.

MSU's all-conference players are quarterback Tommy Mellott, running back Isaiah Ifanse, fullback RJ Fitzgerald, defensive end Brody Grebe, linebacker Callahan O'Reilly, punter Bryce Leighton and long snapper Tommy Sullivan.

Joining O'Connell from the Griz are defensive tackle Alex Gubner, cornerback Justin Ford, safety Robby Hauck and return specialist Malik Flowers.

UC Davis running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. is the Big Sky preseason offensive MVP.

Ifanse earned a first-team All-Big Sky selection after his record-setting 2021 season, and O'Reilly was a second teamer. Both are seniors this year.

Mellott is MSU's first preseason All-Big Sky QB since DeNarius McGhee in 2011. Neither Mellott nor the other six Bobcats on this year's preseason all-conference team were chosen a year ago (since-graduated linebacker Troy Andersen and offensive lineman Taylor Tuiasosopo were MSU's lone selections). Mellott didn't get the starting job until the 2021 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and he led MSU to the title game.

"It's exciting to have the respect of the coaches and everyone that's voting on (the preseason all-conference team), certainly, but the end of the year awards are really what you're working towards," Mellott said Monday at the Big Sky Football Kickoff in Spokane. "I'm super excited to have that pressure, that expectation on me because ultimately, we want to have the best quarterback room in the Big Sky. That's what we're fighting for. That's what we've been working for all summer.

"It's time to put that in between the white lines and go earn it now."

O'Connell, Ford, Hauck and Flowers — all seniors this season — earned first-team all-conference selections last year, while Gubner — now a junior — made the second team.

The last Grizzly to receive Big Sky preseason defensive MVP honors was linebacker Jace Lewis in 2020. Lewis and Hauck were also on last season's preseason All-Big Sky team. O'Connell, who was not selected, went on to finish third in the Buck Buchanan Award voting.

"Pat is deserving" of the preseason MVP, Ford said Monday at the Kickoff. "But I think if he was here, he'd say the same thing: you've got to go get it now. It's cool to have the honor, but like last year, he wasn't on any preseason awards lists, and obviously he was one of the better players in the conference. So it doesn't really mean too much to us."

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