Griz vs. Weber State 12 (copy)

Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed scrambles out of the pocket during the Grizzlies' season-ending loss at Weber State on Friday in Ogden, Utah. Sneed was one of the 17 seniors who helped propel Montana along the path in coach Bobby Hauck's "Return To Dominance."

OGDEN, Utah — Montana’s 17 seniors were recruited by Mick Delaney, Bob Stitt or Bobby Hauck, but the commonality they share is playing a role in helping to turn around the Griz football program.

Montana put together a 10-win season and advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009 — the 2011 appearance was vacated — in just the second season under Hauck.

In one sense, Montana was playing with house money in the quarterfinals, exceeding expectations and making it further than most predicted because of a tough regular-season schedule. In another sense, the 17-10 loss to Weber State felt like a premature exit for the Griz, who had already beaten the Wildcats earlier in the season.

Had the Griz won, a semifinal matchup at No. 2 James Madison would’ve been welcomed in showing whether Montana is “24-14” close to a top-two team in the country or only “45-7” close and has even further to go.

There’s no question Montana is ahead of schedule turning around the program under Hauck. But just how far ahead?

“We might be two years ahead,” Hauck said after the loss to Weber State, before expanding when asked why. “We were in the national quarterfinals. Probably could have won the game.”

Perhaps no player has been more instrumental in helping to expedite Hauck’s plan to “return to dominance” than dynamic quarterback Dalton Sneed. He joined the Griz as a junior college transfer and finished eighth in program history in passing yards and sixth in passing touchdowns despite playing just 23 games.

Sneed knew partly what he was getting into when he came to Montana because the signal caller was originally recruited by Hauck to UNLV over five years ago. He bought into Hauck’s plan again.

“That was kind of his mindset when he came here two years ago, to truly return to dominance,” Sneed said. “That’s what we wanted to do. We had a tremendous senior class this year, had a lot of young guys that stepped up and played a huge role in our team. We just didn’t get it done. But looking back, you can be happy with where we got to this year.”

Then there’s future NFL linebacker Dante Olson, bruising defensive lineman Jesse Sims, steady safety Josh Sandry and selfless cornerback Justin Calhoun as senior leaders on defense. On offense, there’s electric punt returner and receiver Jerry Louie-McGee, versatile lineman Cy Sirmon, homegrown tight end Colin Bingham and inspirational O-lineman Angel Villanueva.

Those are the only eight players from the 2015 recruiting class who made it all the way through. Not only did they buy into Hauck’s vision by being mentally and physically tough on the field and through grueling winter conditioning, spring camp in the snow and fall camp in the heat, but their buy-in was an example for younger players.

“I’m really proud of the way the guys bought into the ‘Return To Dominance’ and putting the Griz on the right track to getting back there,” Olson said. “Playing December football when it’s snowing out, these are memories that will last forever. I can’t wait to see where the program continues to reach.”

Among the seniors, former rugby player Adam Wilson and former NAIA All-American Ryder Rice came in under Hauck and acquitted themselves as Division I talent.

Then there’s the non-starters like Kobey Eaton, Kadeem Hemphill, Keynan Foster, Vika Fa’atuiese, Dylan Eickmeyer and Esai Longoria who’ve taken on specific duties on scout teams or moving positions to contribute in their own way to team success.

It’s that group of seniors that Hauck, and maybe the fans, will remember the most about the 2019 Griz football team, which laid the foundation for future success.

“I think the senior class and how they knew they had to change some things and changed the way we do business," Hauck said. "All they did was embrace the MO. It’s been greatly admired. They’ve been absolutely a joy to coach.

"They love each other. They play for each other. They’re tough as hell. They didn’t want to be done."

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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