MISSOULA — No matter who runs out onto the field to start on Sept. 1, Montana's secondary already looks vastly different than the team that took the field in 2017.
Personnel–wise, four players with starting experience are back: junior strong safety Josh Sandry, senior free safety Evan Epperly and sophomore cornerbacks Dareon Nash and Lewis Cowans.
But there have been several new additions to the secondary since last December.
"We have a great group of guys with the new guys that came in," Sandry said. "They're starting to fit in really well. We're improving every day, and I think we're going to do some big things back there this year."
On the first day of camp, Montana head coach Bobby Hauck talked about how he knew the Grizzlies were short in the secondary, but it was time for people to step up.
Ahead of the seventh practice, Hauck had a different take on his defensive backs.
"That group has a chance to be a strength. If you'd have asked me that a week ago, that was an unknown," Hauck said Wednesday. "But those guys have done a good job. They're working against good players in practice every day, which makes them better. Early reviews would be I think we'll be able to hold up there."
Of the two defensive back groups, the safety position has the most new faces but also the most experience with guys who've been at Montana for a few years.
"Communication. Playing hard. Taking shots. Great eyes. Good technique. Gavin (Robertson) and Robby (Hauck) and Reid (Miller) and Sandry, those guys are really throwing it up in there and I love that," cornerbacks coach C.J. Cox said about what he likes from the safeties. "They're aggressive kids and great kids, too. It's great working with those guys."
Sandry, the veteran of the returning safeties, said the new-to-UM players have melded into the group nicely.
"I think Coach Shann (Schillinger)'s done a really nice job with us, bringing the new guys along. We all get along really well," Sandry said of the safeties. "We have good chemistry. It plays to our advantage when we come out on the football field."
Reid Miller, one of the incoming transfers, agreed.
"We're a very tight–knit group, we get along really well and we hang out outside of football, too, so it makes it even better," Miller said.
Sandry, a 6–foot–1, 203–pound Bigfork native, has the most Grizzly experience under his belt.
Sandry started every game as a sophomore at strong safety and excelled in the defensive backfield last season.
He racked up 49 tackles with a ½ sack, as well as three interceptions for 114 yards. One of those interceptions was Montana's lone scoring play against then–No. 5 Washington in Seattle. He also had one forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a blocked kick, two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
No other Grizzly last year filled out the defensive stat sheet. Sandry is the second–leading returning tackler from last season behind senior linebacker Josh Buss.
Epperly, a 5–foot–10, 197–pound Kalispell Glacier product, is the fifth–leading returning tackler from last season. He had 36 takedowns as a junior, including a tackle for loss, two interceptions and three pass breakups.
Epperly had five starts last season, filling in for the injured Justin Strong for Week One and taking over for Strong after Strong's suspension with four games to go on the calendar.
Robertson is listed at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, but his presence feels bigger than that.
Robertson, a sophomore, dropped down from Arizona ahead of spring ball. The Wildcats moved the former 3-star safety to linebacker and he saw minimal action as a redshirt freshman. He had two tackles and one pass breakup in three games.
"He's a guy that shows flashes of being really, really good," safeties coach Shann Schillinger said of Robertson in April. "When I first saw him get out here in pads, I thought, with his size, there might be some limitations. There's not.
"He can move, and he has some playmaking ability. Now, we have to iron some things out, just like all of our guys, but he shows signs and flashes of being a really good player in this league. He can run and hit, and that's what we're looking for."
When Bobby Hauck spoke at his introductory press conference on Dec. 1, he hinted that some of his "progeny" would become fourth-generation Grizzlies.
At the time, Bobby's only son, Robby, was a true freshman at Northern Arizona. But shortly after the elder Hauck took the job, Robby joined him.
Robby went through spring ball and had three tackles in the spring game. But he hadn't been cleared by the NCAA yet. The NCAA finally cleared him sometime between the end of June and beginning of July.
"The NCAA was not cooperating there very well," coach Hauck said. "They told us no and we re-appealed and said, 'You probably need to look at this one more time. There are some extenuating circumstances,' and they came back with probably the right answer in my mind.
"Him aside, any time you take someone who's a potential critical contributor out, it weakens your team. When you start losing people at different positions for a variety of reasons, whatever they are, that inhibits your ability to win. Any time we can have more good players to our avail, then we have a better chance of winning."
Now that Robby has been cleared, he's expected to make up a considerable piece of the Montana secondary this season.
"Robby's a good, tough football player," defensive coordinator Kent Baer said. "Every coach's son I've been around are pretty good football players. They understand the game, understand what it takes."
Sandry added: "Tough dude. He's going to come out here and you know what you're going to get out of him each and every day. He's consistent. He works hard. He's enjoyable to be around."
Miller's been at Montana since the beginning of the summer, and he said that's helped him immensely in two facets: learning the defense and building relationships.
Miller, a 5–foot–9, 202–pound graduate transfer out of Arkansas, primarily played on special teams for the Razorbacks, playing in all 12 games as a junior, racking up nine tackles and recovering one fumble. Miller also played in all 13 of Arkansas' games as a sophomore and totaled nine tackles.
"He adds a lot of experience," Sandry said of Miller. "He played at Arkansas. That's some big–time ball there. He definitely knows what he's doing. He's a great dude. He works hard and comes in doing all the right things. He's just a good dude to have in the secondary."
Redshirt freshman safety Michael McGinnis has made his presence known at practice, too.
The 6–foot–3, 191–pound Sidney native picked off transfer quarterback Cam Humphrey on Friday and stripped the ball from running back Alijah Lee and took it in to score on Sunday.
He's picking up where he left off. In the spring, McGinnis stood out as well. He intercepted a Gresch Jensen pass in the spring game and returned it 32 yards.
The cornerbacks room is vastly different from last year, too, as senior starter Ryan McKinley graduated and junior starter Markell Sanders retired from the sport after the season.
The position is full of new or young guys. The oldest players in the room are a trio of juniors — former wideout Kobey Eaton, former wideout Justin Calhoun and new–to–UM transfer Kadeem Hemphill.
The other four are all sophomores: Dareon Nash, Lewis Cowans, Gavin Crow and Josh Egbo.
"We have a lot of work to do. The main thing is we have two more weeks. Thank God we don't play tomorrow," Cox said. "The silver lining is, these kids are young. They're sophomores, they're juniors. We're going to have these guys for the next two or three years. They're doing a hell of a job now, just imagine how they'll look in the next couple years."
Because of the youth and inexperience, no one has stepped up yet to be the position group's vocal leader.
"We don't have a guy in my room that has actually stepped up and become that leader," Cox said. "I think if anybody, leading by example, coming out and going to work every day would probably be Nash, but he's not a vocal guy. We don't have that just yet, but I encourage those guys, 'Somebody step up and take that role.'"
Calhoun has started 20 games in a Montana Grizzly uniform, but all those starts were on the offensive side of the ball.
He's been a major contributor for the Montana offense, recording 1,210 career receiving yards since his redshirt freshman season. But he hung that up to help out the team and switch to playing cornerback.
"He's a natural corner," Baer said of Calhoun. "I think he's going to be good. He's got a lot to learn, but it seems like he wants to do it. That's the key. Not everybody can do that. Not every receiver can move over and be a corner. I think it was the right move."
Cox added: "He's a bright kid. Smart kid, he gets it. He's played receiver. He knows exactly how they're trying to attack the corner. Does he know exactly what he's doing just yet? No, but that's the beauty of it all. He's making plays and he doesn't know what he's doing yet. He's only been with us for a week and half. He also brings maturity to the room. He's asking the right questions in meetings. He's competing his tail off. We just need to get him running to the ball."
Nash started the last three games — and saw playing time in all 11 games — for Montana last season at cornerback as a redshirt freshman and posted 12 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups.
The 6–foot–2, 178–pounder out of Covina, California, had two tackles in the spring game.
Cowans made one start as a redshirt freshman last year against Washington, but he played in nine of UM's 11 games.
He made the most of his time on the field, too. He's the 10th–leading returning tackler for the Grizzlies, racking up 14 tackles with a ½ tackle for loss and two pass breakups.
Almost half of his tackles last year, six of them anyway, came against Eastern Washington.
He's made some plays during camp as well. On the third day of practice, Cowans had an interception that would've been a touchdown had the play not been blown dead.