MISSOULA – On Monday afternoon, the University of Montana announced the departure of two longtime Grizzly football coaches.
One was defensive line coach Barry Sacks, who decided to retire after 42 years of coaching. Perhaps more notably, the other was defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Kent Baer, who resigned for personal reasons unrelated to football.
His linebacking unit, which included NFL hopeful Patrick O’Connell and All Big Sky award winners Marcus Welnel and Levi Janacaro, was one of the best in the FCS ranks. His defense as a whole was unwavering, allowing for the second-lowest points per game in the Big Sky Conference last season at 21.3.
Since he took over in 2018, the Grizzlies have allowed fewer points per game each season up until last year. They peaked in 2021, giving up just 16.31 per contest.
In 2022 there was a glaring trend that could not be overlooked. In big games against good teams, such as the Brawl of the Wild or the FCS playoffs, the increasingly rare 3-3-5 defense came to the fore. And that wasn’t exclusive to the FCS level – ask the TCU.
Back to the Griz, whose three-man front was shredded by Montana State for 439 yards. North Dakota State upped the ante in the second round of the FCS playoffs, raking in 453 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns from over 65 yards, a feat they hadn’t managed all season until this contest.
The stunts up front might confuse the world’s Eastern Washingtons and Cal Polys, but not so much the Bison and Bobcats. And once opponents crossed the line, the ball carriers were often left with second place to beat as Montana pressed his linebackers with almost every snap.
There have been both pros and cons that have manifested themselves at different times, but a new era may now be upon the Grizzlies defense.
Will they adapt, calm down, or move on to something more innovative? That answer will come, at least in part, when a new hire is made.
There are three ways the program can find its new defensive leader: an obvious take, an easy take, or a surprise take.
The Obvious – Ronnie Bradford
The 15-year NFL veteran-turned-coach had only been the defensive backs coach at UM for two seasons. He’s done so much in that time, including developing star cornerback Justin Ford.
In Bradford’s freshman season, Ford led all of college football with nine interceptions. In 2022, his name was mentioned in NFL gossip when defenses shunned him.
Cornerback Corbin Walker had a pick-six against NDSU in the playoffs. Another, Jayden Dawson, led Montana in pass breaks as he was the one most tested against Ford. Her unit passed the third fewest yards in Big Sky.
This would be the obvious choice for head coach Bobby Hauck. Of the remaining defensive coaches on the team, he is the clear heir to the throne as safety coach Roger Cooper has just completed his freshman year with the team.
Carrying out the internal promotion would also, of course, result in a smoother transition of power. Not only has Bradford already delivered results with Montana, he has done so everywhere he has been.
At USC from 2016-18, he coached Adoree’ Jackson, who went on to become a first-round NFL draft pick, and sixth-round draft pick Leon McQuay III. In 2017, his secondary had 16 interceptions, which ranked her 19thth national.
Before moving into the collegiate ranks, he was an assistant with the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. There he again worked with defenders, mentoring legend Champ Bailey and standout Dre Bly.
Not to mention his own career, which has included 523 tackles, 14 interceptions, 70 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
This would be his first time as defensive coordinator and it could be about time.
“Oh, he’s after us,” Walker said last season. “He just wants to get the best out of us and the way to do that is to train hard. He’s training hard but that’s why we’re good. He knows what is expected of us and when he doesn’t perform like that he attacks us. It’s great to have that boost.”
The Simple – Kraig Paulson
He’s been around the block a time or two.
Paulson, a Plentywood native who started the tradition of passing the No. 37 jersey, has had two stints with the Grizzlies as their defensive coordinator. He’s at Sacramento State as the defensive line coach, but the Hornets have seen some changes during the offseason.
Former head coach Troy Taylor went to Stanford and Andy Thompson, another UM graduate, got the job.
Any time movements of this magnitude are made, tremors follow. Perhaps Paulson, coming back for another run at UM, could be one of them.
It would be a simple super move. He and Hauck have a close relationship that dates back to the 1980s. In 1988, Paulson landed a full-time coaching job with Montana, the same year Hauck began coaching, also with the Griz.
When Hauck finally got the job as head coach in 2003, he hired Paulson to join him in 2004 and the two stayed together until Hauck left for UNLV in 2009.
“Kraig knows the game,” Hauck said of Paulson last season. “He’s locked in, focused, intense. All the things a football coach needs to be. He is smart; he’s a math guy, for goodness sake.”
And throughout his stints in Montana, he’s proven there’s no reason not to bring him back.
In seasons 1998 and 1999, his first two as UM’s DC, he won both Big Sky titles before departing in 2000. During his second stint, he won six straight Big Sky titles. By those calculations, Paulson is 8-to-8 in conference championships as Montana’s defensive coordinator.
If there is mutual interest, he could be a candidate who seamlessly goes nowhere.
The surprise – Tim Hauck
That would just be a surprise because Tim isn’t training right now. His last season as a coach was with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020 and he’s been enjoying some time away since then. He can often be found spectating grizzly games.
At the same time, would it really be a surprise? He’s Bobby’s younger brother, he was on the Griz team from 2004 to 2007 and he has all the experience to jump right in.
He is a 12-year NFL veteran, a Super Bowl winner as an assistant coach, a former Power 5 assistant at UCLA, and a Montana grad. Without Robby, the Grizzlies need another Hauck or it wouldn’t be the same, would it?
Whether or not he would jump right in and take that role over a more senior man like Bradford is up for debate, and I suppose another reason would be surprising, but it wouldn’t be uncommon.
And when Bradford moves to DC, maybe Tim will reprise his old role as defensive backs coach.
One way or another, Tim Hauck is a name to listen to when Montana starts making coaching staff announcements.