When it comes to sacking the quarterback, Zack Wagenmann is a simple kind of man.
“I try to have quite a few moves, but the key is to be good at a few of those moves,” said the Montana junior defensive end, who ranked fourth in the FCS in sacks last season. “Sometimes quantity isn’t the word but quality.”
And Zack’s bread-and-butter move? Well, it’s sort of two in one.
“My favorite would probably be hand-slap, speed-to-power,” he explained Friday after an intense preseason practice at the Riverbowl. “It’s a good get-off, play with the hands and if that doesn’t work then convert to a power move.”
A Missoula Sentinel grad, Wagenmann was arguably the most pleasant surprise on the Grizzly team last season. With his trademark long locks flowing from underneath his helmet, No. 58 terrorized opposing signal-callers to the tune of a team-high 11.5 sacks.
But the season didn’t finish on a high note for Wagenmann or his team, and they’ve been working to make up ground ever since. Zack had his own personal hill to climb when he tore his labrum and underwent surgery in December.
“He’s done everything in his power to rehab it,” Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “Speaking from experience I think it takes a little time to knock some of the scar tissue off.
“I think in the long run his shoulder will be stronger than it was before. Last year was a breakout season for him. This year I think he’s one of the best defensive players in the country.”
That’s hard to argue after watching Wagenmann in practice. Besides his rare quickness, he’s bulked up from 245 to 255 pounds and throws blockers around like rag dolls.
“He’s bigger, his hair is longer... ,” Gregorak joked. “No he really had an awesome offseason.”
* * * * *
You might say Friday was a day of awakening for Wagenmann and his defensive pals. Head coach Mick Delaney arranged for a third-and-long situational competition between the starting offense and defense and the competitive juices flowed freely.
Gregorak beckoned his defense, “Compete! Compete!” And boy did they ever, even pushing it to the limit on occasion in Montana’s second helmet-and-shoulder-pads practice of the week.
The pass defense was especially crisp at times. Cornerback Anthony Goodwin showed his sharp instincts in stepping up to wreck a quick out. Reserve safety Justin Whitted did the same on a pass up the middle.
The topper came on the final 11-on-11 play of the day. Sophomore corner Nate Harris stepped in front of a short pass for an interception and was immediately swarmed by the rest of the spirited Grizzly defenders in celebration.
“I think we’re a good defense,” said Gregorak, who returns 10 starters from last season. “The next couple weeks we need to become great.
“I’d like to have a great practice is all I’m saying. I thought our front looked pretty good. Four days in, it’s been warm, they’re starting to get a little camp-ish. A lot of these guys are veterans, we have a lot of senior leadership. We’ve got to start and finish strong. I didn’t think we started out strong. I thought we finished really good today.”
Wagenmann, who celebrated his 21st birthday Thursday, believes things began to change for the Griz defense this week when practice went from helmet-only the first two days to helmet and shoulder pads Thursday.
“It’s been very encouraging,” he said. “The defense has been flying around. We’ve been bringing good energy to the field and it’s exciting.”
* * * * *
Montana’s offense was not without its moments Friday afternoon. Tight end Clay Pierson had everyone impressed with a one-handed grab on a pass across the middle thrown behind him by Jordan Johnson. Wideout Jamaal Jones, a transfer from Washington, had his best practice in maroon, with a long TD reception that prompted one assistant coach to run 50 yards to congratulate him.
Montana fans will have their first opportunity to watch their team in a scrimmage format on Sunday at 7:45 p.m. inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. In the meantime, Wagenmann has a message:
“It’s funny, we have the 5-6 season so some people are worried, apprehensive,” he observed. “But we’re confident in ourselves and real excited to get started.”
Quick kicks: The 6-foot-3 Wagenmann was named to the Sports Network’s FCS preseason All-America team. Last year he was named to the Associated Press second team ... Redshirt freshman guard Ben Weyer, listed at No. 2 on the depth chart behind William Poehls, sat out practice Friday with a hamstring wrapped tightly ... The Griz are slated to return to Washington-Grizzly Stadium for Saturday’s afternoon practice, which is closed to the public. They will have their first two-a-day on Sunday.