For all he’s accomplished in a Montana football uniform, senior safety Matt Hermanson probably deserves a good nickname.
He’s the Grizzlies’ top returning tackler, so Stopper seems to fit. Or maybe tie his anthropology major in with his willingness to dig in on the football field even when he’s hurt and call him Dirt Hermanson.
“Everyone calls me Hermie, that’s all,” Matt said with a chuckle Tuesday as his team opened preseason workouts at the Riverbowl.
If there’s one Griz you can rely on stemming the run, it’s Hermanson. No. 12 notched 107 total stops last season – second only to middle linebacker Brock Coyle, who is making waves with the Seattle Seahawks. Two years ago Matt was fourth on the team in tackles.
But pass coverage is where Hermanson and his pals on the back end need to pick it up a notch. They’re the first to admit it after allowing an average of 264 yards in Big Sky Conference games last season. Only two loop teams allowed more.
“I’m tired of the excuses. I have none,” Griz defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said after practice Tuesday. “This will be my third year so I expect to be better myself. I told the defense (Monday) night it’s been a heck of a learning curve for me, too.
“I feel like with another year under my belt, I’ll be better. I expect to be better. It just takes a little time. It’s been a process going from position coach to coordinator. I also expect the players to take some ownership in this defense. I told them last night.”
To that end, Hermanson and his compadres have been working hard all summer. The work did not go unnoticed by Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson, who has seen something encouraging in informal 7-on-7 drills the last eight weeks.
“The most impressive part was the defensive backs,” he offered. “They improved I think more than anybody.
“And those three linebackers that have filled in have done just as good or better than the guys we had last year.”
The three include Jeremiah Kose in the middle and Herbert Gamboa and Kendrick Van Ackeren on the outside. They will be integral in Montana’s pass defense along with a front that promises to be stellar and a secondary that includes returning starters Hermanson and Nate Harris (CB) along with Joshua Dennard (CB) and Justin Whitted (SS).
“We’re a tight-knit group,” Hermanson said of the back seven. “We know what’s going on and if someone messes up, they know what they did, so we don’t have to get after each other. I know we improved a lot since last fall.”
Last December remains a sore subject for the Grizzlies. Working so hard to earn a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs made losing at home to Coastal Carolina especially frustrating.
“We ended the season last year poorly in our minds,” Griz defensive end and senior co-captain Zack Wagenmann said. “We don’t like to live in the past, but then again we can’t forget that Coastal Carolina game. So that’s lingering in a lot of our minds and really motivation for camp.”
The defense had its ups and downs Tuesday. There were lowlights – wideout Jamaal Jones burned the unit deep and Chase Naccarato was tough to stop on the slants – but the line largely had its way and there were pass break-ups made by the linebackers and defensive backs.
“Matt Hermanson, with health, will be one of the better safeties I think on our level,” Gregorak said. “Then we’re looking to fill the other safety spot.
“I feel good about it in that Justin Whitted has been working his tail off. He’s tall, long and has good ball skills. Jake Dallaserra has worked his tail off. He’s got a lot of explosion, a good Butte guy. Then we added a new kid, (Laney College transfer) Eric Johnson. He’s got talent but needs to learn the ropes.”
Gregorak is asked frequently about the loss of his three starting senior linebackers from 2013. Two of those are presently in NFL camps.
“I think we’re going to be really good,” he insists. “(OLB) Herbert Gamboa is finally playing the position we recruited him to play. He’s very impressive. I expect him to have a breakout year.
“Jeremiah Kose, with health, should be an exceptional middle linebacker. Kendrick Van Ackeren is a guy that came here as a tweener-type dude. We were going to maybe play him at safety. He played linebacker at Hawaii and started as a freshman. With health, Kenny will have a big-time year at weakside linebacker.”
For a Griz squad negotiating August heat and a coaching staff determined to get them into supreme shape, the light at the end of the tunnel is an Aug. 30 opener at Wyoming. Hermanson, in particular, is looking forward to that one.
“I know a couple of my high school coaches actually played down in Wyoming for their college ball, so they’ll be there,” said Matt, who grew up in eastern South Dakota. “Then I have a buddy who goes to college out there, so it will be a good time. I’m pretty excited.”
Montana will practice at the Riverbowl again Wednesday at 9:40 a.m. That will be a helmets-only workout, followed by a practice inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium (in helmets and shoulder pads) on Thursday afternoon.
Quick kicks: A number of dinged-up Grizzlies attended Tuesday’s practice but did not participate. Topping the list was starting offensive tackle Trevor Poole, who is dealing with a disc issue. Wide receivers Ellis Henderson, Taylor Walcott, Sean Haynes and Nico Graham did not join in strenuous drills. Haynes has a long road back. He is wearing a walking boot ... UM running back Joey Counts will redshirt while his foot heals from surgery ... Griz backup running back Travon Van did some drills with the wideouts and tight end Mitch Saylor was split out wide in one offensive set ... One true freshman who definitely passes the eye test is center Robert Luke of Tacoma, Washington. No. 75 (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) has a muscular base unrivaled by his teammates ... Montana has added a kicker in junior Daniel Sullivan. He is a transfer from the University of Wyoming.