MISSOULA — Montana football coach Bobby Hauck and his staff make three separate evaluations when scouting players to recruit.
First is their football film. Second is their academic history. Third is their character and personality.
The third and final of those was the toughest to gauge this recruiting cycle because of the challenges and obstacles presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Coaches haven’t been able to visit recruits off campus and recruits haven’t been able to take official visits to campus because the NCAA implemented a dead period in March that’s been extended until at least April 21, meaning Junior Day and summer camps got canceled.
“The hard part was the research into who these guys are as people, their character, their determination to be a great player, just kind of who they are as individuals,” Hauck said on Wednesday after the Griz signed 19 players on the first day of the early signing period.
“That was the hard part because we couldn’t spend time. We did a lot of things like talking to people as you and I are right now on a video conference. But also we only brought guys in the door who had people around them that we knew very well.”
He added: “We had to trust people that we know’s opinion, which is a good way of doing things.”
That made for some common themes in the 2021 recruiting class: the majority of the players came from within the state and had some sort of tie to UM. It helped that there was a strong group of seniors in the state this year.
Montana ended up with a recruiting class that was heavily built on players with Montana roots. Of their 19 signees, 15 were in-state kids, and six came from the city of Missoula. Eleven of their final 12 commits came from within the state.
Five of the signees came from Missoula Sentinel, coached by Dane Oliver, who played for Bobby Hauck. Those players are Jace Klucewich, Geno Leonard, TJ Rausch, Soren Syvrud and Camden Sirmon, five players who Hauck said he’s known all their families for between 30 and 40 years.
“Fifteen out of 19 being from Montana really fires me up,” Hauck said. “I think it speaks to the quality of high school football and the coaching that goes on in this state, but I also think it speaks to our commitment to Montana high school kids.”
Many of the players who signed either had family members who played for or are currently playing for the Griz or another UM athletic team, or they came from a family or coaching staff with which Hauck or his staff had developed connections with over the years.
Klucewich’s father and uncle played for Montana. Sirmon’s uncle and brother played for the Griz. Syvrud and Camden Capser, from Billings Central, each had uncles suit up for UM, while both Leonard's grandfather and cousin played for Montana.
Missoula Big Sky’s Colter Janacaro and Ben McGourin of Cheney, Washington, each have a brother currently on the team. Butte native Jake Olson’s father played for the Grizzly basketball team, and Rausch’s mother played for the Lady Griz.
“They know that the University of Montana is an awesome place to go to college and have a great college experience and get a great education, and they know who we are, they’ve been following Grizzly football since they were young,” Hauck said.
Then there’s Helena High’s Zac Evans, who’s the son of a football coach. Bozeman’s Brady and Padraig Lang have a different sort of family tie as twins, which UM has previously recruited. It's the third year in a row Hauck has signed at least one player from coach Levi Wesche's Bozeman team.
There are signees from smaller schools that have had kids succeed at UM. Kellen Detrick comes from Havre, which produced Marc Mariani, who was coached by Hauck. Sloan McPherson comes from Savage, a 6-man program that sent Ryder Rice to Montana as a grad transfer last year and Pat Foster to the Griz in the 1980s when Hauck was getting into coaching at UM.
From Class B, Red Lodge’s Corby Mann and Whitehall’s Dylan Smith are the two other small-schools signees. Mann was coached by formerly Grizzly John Fitzgerald, and Smith joins another Whitehall Trojan already on the team.
“We’ve got a long, long history of guys in this program from the smaller schools who’ve excelled,” Hauck said. “We try to mine those schools as best we can, and not all of them work out, but they’re great guys to have on our roster.”
Montana signed only four out-of-state players: McGourin from Washington, offensive lineman Liam Brown from Oregon, offensive lineman Declan McCabe from Texas and quarterback Daniel Britt from Nevada. Hauck coached at UNLV in Nevada, and Brown has brothers who play football for Portland State.
While the Griz offered 31 out-of-state kids, their focus turned more toward in-state kids as the in-person opportunities to meet were eliminated as dead periods were extended. Hauck felt the shift to in-state recruiting took the sting out of not getting to show off UM’s facilities because in-state kids know about them. Of their 51 known offers, 20 were to in-state kids, including the final nine.
“It was a strange year in terms of recruiting. It was just different than anything we’ve ever encountered,” Hauck said, soon after adding: “It’s tough to get to know kids, probably impossible to get to know kids, especially guys that aren’t local."
Montana didn’t accept an out-of-state commitment from someone without a connection to UM since Brown committed on Sept. 16 as the seventh commit in the class.
They also weren’t just handing out scholarships or walk-on opportunities because the NCAA has paused everyone’s eligibility, meaning the players in the recruiting classes from this year and last year will both be true freshmen next year, providing a whole other host of challenges going forward.
“There’s a lot of good players that wanted in the door here that we can’t take,” Hauck said. “That’s kind of the nature of being at the University of Montana is our problem is not getting guys in recruiting. The important part is evaluating and getting the right guys.”