Griz vs. Washington 35 (copy)

Montana cornerbacks coach Ronnie Bradford speaks with players during a game at Washington in 2021. Bradford could be in line for a promotion with former defensive coordinator Kent Baer no longer with the Griz.

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 call it quits after a 42-year coaching career. Perhaps more notably, the other was defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Kent Baer, stepping down for personal reasons unrelated to football.

His linebacking unit, including the likes of NFL hopeful Patrick O’Connell and all-Big Sky honorees Marcus Welnel and Levi Janacaro, was one of the best in the FCS ranks. His defense as a whole was a stalwart, allowing the second-fewest points per game in the Big Sky Conference at 21.3 this past season.

Since he took over in 2018, the Grizzlies have allowed fewer points per game in every season until this past year. They peaked in 2021, relinquishing just 16.31 per contest.

In 2022, there was a glaring trend that couldn’t be overlooked. In big games against good teams, like the Brawl of the Wild or the FCS playoffs, the increasingly rare 3-3-5 defense was exposed. And that was not exclusive to the FCS level — ask TCU.

Back to the Griz, though, whose three-man front was shredded by Montana State to the tune of 439 yards. North Dakota State did one better in the second round of the FCS playoffs, going for 453 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns of over 65 yards, which they hadn’t achieved one of all season until that contest.

The stunts up front could confuse the Eastern Washingtons and Cal Polys of the world, but not so much the Bison and Bobcats. And once opponents got past the line, ball carriers were oftentimes left with just the secondary to beat as Montana provided pressure with its linebackers on almost every snap.

There were both positives and drawbacks that showed at different times, but now a new era could be upon the Grizzlies defense.

Will they adjust, settle or transition to something more cutting edge? That answer will come, at least in part, when a new hire is made.

There’s three ways the program can go about finding its new defensive leader: making an obvious hire, an easy one or a surprising one.

The obvious – Ronnie Bradford

The 15-year NFL veteran turned coach has only been the defensive backs coach with UM for two seasons. In that time, he has already offered so much, including the development of star cornerback Justin Ford.

In Bradford’s first season, Ford led all of college football with nine interceptions. In 2022, his name was mentioned in NFL chatter as defenses avoided him.

Cornerback Corbin Walker had a pick-six against NDSU in the playoffs. Another, Jayden Dawson, led Montana in pass breakups as he was the one most-often tested opposite of Ford. Their unit allowed the third-fewest pass yards in the Big Sky.

This would be the obvious choice for head coach Bobby Hauck to make. Of the remaining defensive coaches with the team, he is the clear heir to the throne as safeties coach Roger Cooper just finished his first year with the team.

Making the in-house promotion would result in a naturally smoother transition of power, too. Not only has Bradford already provided results with Montana, he’s done so everywhere he’s been.

With USC from 2016-18, he coached Adoree’ Jackson, who went on to become a first-round NFL draft pick as well as Leon McQuay III, who went in the sixth round. In 2017, his secondary had 16 interceptions, ranking them 19th nationally.

Before moving to the college ranks, he was an assistant with the Denver Broncos from 2003-08. There, he again worked with defensive backs, mentoring legend Champ Bailey and standout Dre Bly.

Not to mention his own career where he accumulated 523 tackles, 14 interceptions, 70 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. 

This would be his first time as a defensive coordinator and it may be the time.

“Oh, he gets after us,” Walker said this past season. “He just wants the best out of us and the way to do that is coach hard. He coaches hard but that’s the reason we’re good. He knows what’s expected of us and when he don’t perform like that, he gets on us. It’s great having that push.”

The easy – Kraig Paulson

He’s been around the block a time or two.

Paulson, a Plentywood native who started the passing-down tradition of the No. 37 jersey, has already had two stints with the Grizzlies as their defensive coordinator. He’s with Sacramento State as their defensive line coach, but the Hornets have had some changes in the offseason.

Former head coach Troy Taylor left for Stanford and Andy Thompson, another UM alum, was awarded the job.

Any time moves of that magnitude are made there are tremors that follow. Maybe 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 strong relationship that dates back to the 1980s. In 1988, Paulson earned a full-time coaching job with Montana, the same year Hauck got his start in coaching, also with the Griz.

When Hauck eventually earned the head coaching job in 2003, he hired Paulson to join him in 2004 and the two remained together until 2009, when Hauck left for UNLV.

“Kraig knows the game,” Hauck said of Paulson this past season. “He’s locked in, focused, intense. All the things that you have to be as a football coach. He’s smart; he’s a math guy for God’s sake.”

And during his Montana stints, he’s proved there’s no reason not to bring him back.

During the 1998 and 1999 seasons, his first two as UM’s DC, he won both Big Sky titles before leaving in 2000. During his second stint, he won six-straight Big Sky titles. By these calculations, Paulson is 8 for 8 on conference championships as the Montana defensive coordinator.

If there is mutual interest, he could be a candidate that seamlessly moves into the void.

The surprise – Tim Hauck

This would only be a surprise because Tim isn’t coaching right now. His last season as a coach was in 2020 with the Philadelphia Eagles and since, he’s been enjoying some time away. He can often be found as a spectator at Grizzly games.

At the same time, would it really be a surprise? He’s the younger brother of Bobby, he was on the Griz staff from 2004-07 and he has all the experience to step right in.

He’s a 12-year NFL veteran, a Super Bowl winning assistant coach, a former Power 5 assistant at UCLA and a Montana alum. With no more Robby, the Grizzlies need another Hauck or things wouldn’t be the same, right?

Whether or not he’d come right in and assume that role over a longer-tenured guy like Bradford is up for debate, and I suppose, another reason it’d be surprising, but it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.

And if Bradford moves to DC, maybe Tim will fill his old role as the defensive backs coach.

One way or another, Tim Hauck is a name to listen for as Montana begins to roll out coaching staff announcements.

Lucas Semb is the Griz football beat writer for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Semb or email him at lucas.semb@406mtsports.com.

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