MISSOULA — Geno Leonard was enjoying getting to carry the football.
The Montana Grizzly commit was a sophomore at the time when he was seeing action for Missoula Sentinel at fullback. He also was showing his good hands to catch passes, and it looked like he might be able to rack up some nice stats over three seasons.
But that wasn’t what Sentinel needed from him in 2018. Spartans coach Dane Oliver felt it would be most beneficial for the team for Leonard to move to the offensive line.
Leonard eventually acquiesced, forfeiting the stats to do the dirty, often-underappreciated work on the offensive line while continuing his hard-hitting ways at linebacker.
“Coach O helped me develop the character of not being selfish,” Leonard, now a senior, said while reflecting on the conversation. “I was being selfish and arrogant. I was wrong. I’ve learned from it. It’s not about doing things for yourself but doing it for someone else.
“Talking with my coaches and teammates, it’s what we needed. The most important thing is developing those friendships with your teammates. You want to put them before you. It’s not about me. It’s about the other guys.”
Leonard’s self-sacrifice is evident across the team in many varieties, especially in each of the team’s other three captains. It can also be seen in Sentinel’s two other Grizzly commits: TJ Rausch and Jace Klucewich, who’ve recognized they don’t need to be the single stud on a team littered with so many stars that it might be able to give the night sky in western Montana a run for its money.
Leonard has set single-season career highs in tackles (37), tackles for loss (10) and sacks (4.5) to go with one forced fumble and one pass breakup. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder also plays center for the same team his father played on in the 1980s and his grandfather coached to the 1972 state championship.
“Geno is born to lead,” Oliver said. “Geno’s hobby is football. That’s what he loves. Just a film junkie. He’s a great athlete. His passion is linebacker, and he’s the heart and soul of the defense. He has work ethic and attention to detail. He’s a tremendous tackler. When he hits you, you go down. Spartan blood is in his family. He’s born to play football.”
Rausch had a conversation similar to the one Leonard had about playing a different position for the betterment of the team. As a junior, he began to play cornerback in addition to wide receiver.
“Stepping up and playing defense was a big challenge because I hadn't played defense since my eighth grade year,” Rausch recalled. “Our D coordinator at the time, Khalin Anderson, came up and asked me how about playing defense. I said whatever you want to me play, I’ll play it. It’s ended up working out for the team.”
Rausch’s 30 catches for 387 and five touchdowns are down from his 37 grabs for 546 yards and eight scores in 2019, his first year playing both offense and defense, but he hasn’t paid attention to his stats. He’s improved his defense, with all four of his interceptions coming this season, and his 21 tackles, six pass breakups and one fumble this year being career bests.
“TJ is quiet by nature, but when the bright lights come on, he rises to the occasion,” Oliver said of the 6-3, two-way player recruited by UM as an athlete. “We’ve run the ball more, but he finds a way to impact the game with a spectacular catch or big block. He’s had key interceptions. He’s a good athlete and believes in himself. He could be a two-way player at the next level. He’s got as good ball skills as I’ve ever seen tracking the ball and high-pointing it.”
Unlike Leonard and Rausch, Klucewich was new to Sentinel this season. He transferred in from Class A Frenchtown, where he was a standout player on offense, defense and special teams. Coming in, he knew things weren’t going to run through him.
“I didn’t even really ask for playing time,” Klucewich said. “I knew I was going to have to earn it. I knew I wasn’t going to walk in and take somebody’s spot. I guess I made some plays in practice, so I earned my spot. If there was someone better than me, they were going to play.”
The 5-foot-11 dynamo has had just 37 offensive touches in nine games, running 15 times for 90 yards and two touchdowns while catching 22 passes for 337 yards and four scores. Those are down from his 147 touches as a junior at Frenchtown, where he ran for 862 yards and 17 scores and had 560 receiving yards and eight touchdown catches.
“I’ve always been a defensive-minded person. That’s what I’m going to play in college is safety,” Klucewich said. “Who doesn’t love touching the ball? But I love watching other people succeed. It doesn’t matter to me as long as we win. I’m running fly motions as decoys. I’m totally cool with that. I just want to go out there and win.”
Defensively, Klucewich has racked up 25 tackles and five tackles for loss, the latter a career high, according to MaxPreps, to go with one interception, one sack and three pass breakups. He’s also still trying to break off a punt or kickoff for a return touchdown.
“Jace gets attention for his speed, but he’s a hitter. I’d compare him to Tim Hauck,” Oliver said of the former Grizzly and NFL player. “He likes to mix it up and play downhill. With that speed, he can come from tremendous depth and is tracking players as good as I’ve ever seen, his path to tackles. His speed is so good they just go down.”
The sacrifices Leonard, Rausch and Klucewich made are seen elsewhere on the team. Returning starter Dayton Bay and transfer Camden Sirmon made a two-quarterback system work. Dylan Rollins, who’s being recruited by Power Five teams, moves along the offensive line to wherever the team needs him. Guys like Soren Syvrud and Donovan South have split time at running back.
“I just think we all have the mindset,” Leonard said. “Everyone wants everyone else to be successful. No one’s putting themselves in front of the other. We’re not worried about touches or personal accolades. We’re willing to be a team instead of individuals. We’re worried about the wins and losses.”
Rausch added: “I think we all want the same thing. It’s not like anybody’s bigger than the team. Everybody’s working as hard as they can to achieve that goal.”
Oliver knows something about playing a role to have team success. He was a receiver on Montana’s 2001 national title team under coach Joe Glenn. He later played for Bobby Hauck at UM and went on to further his learning at Boise State under Chris Petersen.
Oliver has implemented a college-like culture across nine years at Sentinel after spending five years as an assistant coach. Film study has been of vital importance. Attention to detail has been preached. And promoting competition within the team means the most talented players will see the field in the way they can best contribute to the team.
So when guys like Leonard, Rausch and Klucewich move on to UM, they should have somewhat of a grasp on what to expect.
“From doing how we do what we do, I think Coach O spending all his time focusing on us is getting us prepared and disciplined for the rest of our lives, not just for the guys going to play in college,” Leonard said.
That aspect of being prepared for college football is part of what prompted Klucewich to transfer to Sentinel for his senior year because of what he saw as “the best competition in Montana,” in addition to getting to play with some long-time friends. It’s the same thing that his father, Josh Klucewich, a former Grizzly, did when he went from Big Sky to Sentinel for his senior year.
“Just the depth here, even my first year coming in, coach (Oliver) really starts them young in the program, gets them buying in and rewarding the upperclassmen for staying here,” Klucewich said. “It makes the younger classes want to stay in there and get those rewards. He finds a way to get everyone on the field.
“The program is just I feel different from other programs. They just care quite a bit more and the coaches are more dedicated, cut up film for us, help us learn. We’ve got a drone filming practice, so we’re able to get feedback on how we’re practicing, a little different than just watching film after. I feel like that’s how it is in college.”
Klucewich, Rausch and Leonard have the makeup of the type of players Bobby Hauck desires — Rollins also has an offer from the Griz — and so they’ll get to continue playing football beyond this Friday.
“The common theme is they enjoy the physical nature of football,” Oliver said. “They’re explosive, fast, sudden in their movements. They enjoy the game of football and they enjoy hard coaching. You put those factors together along with being intelligent, and they have all the characteristics of high-level football and people.”
All three of them committed to Montana over the summer, even before fall camp began. That’s allowed them to focus on the season and not worry about their college futures.
They haven’t talked among each other about their future at UM since they began preparing for the season, trying to stay in the moment. But they’ll soon be able to focus on that, continuing to strengthen the bond they built over the years, spanning back to their time playing football with or against each other in Missoula Youth Football during grade school.
“It’s neat to see their objective is to win the game,” Oliver said of Leonard, Rausch and Klucewich. “They don’t care about their stats. They really want the team to succeed. That’s what made this group of three going to the Griz so special.”