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For a second straight year the Grizzlies are mining their roster to replace all three starting linebackers for spring football drills.

It wasn't graduation that took the starters away like last year though. No, last season's starting three aren't even out of eyesight.

"We're all just trying to be like No. 10 over there," Vika Fa'atuiese said before Wednesday's practice, gesturing across the field to senior middle linebacker Connor Strahm.

Strahm and fellow first-stringers Josh Buss and James Banks are all inactive for spring drills while recovering from injuries. The defense has had to learn on the fly in their absence the past month, but the loss of the position's elder statesmen also means ample opportunity for the next generation of Griz backers.

And they're showing their high ceiling already.

Fa'atuiese, a sophomore, has stepped up as the man in the middle while redshirt-freshman Jace Lewis rocketed up the depth chart to take over first-string duties in last Friday's initial spring scrimmage at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. He cashed in on the promotion with a handful of tackles for loss that impressed the modest crowd in attendance -- and his coaches.

"Jace Lewis made a lot of big jumps in a week and that's kind of what spring practice is for," linebackers coach Travis Niekamp said of the Townsend product's first spring in Griz camp. "To see those young guys get reps under their belt, let them play fast to get some confidence in what they're doing."

Lewis, a 6-foot-1, 213-pounder, said he was nervous about his first live action as a Grizzly. It's tough to fill in for a guy like Josh Buss, Montana's top returning tackler with 81 stops, which included a Big Sky-leading 20 tackles for loss.

"It's huge to step up and show what we have," began Lewis, a strong-side backer, "just to show that we're deep in the linebacker position and if someone goes down we're not going to miss a beat going forward."

***

The relief role isn't as new for Fa'atuiese (6-3, 220). In his first spring in Missoula in 2016, the California native found himself in the same spot with Strahm undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.

That was his first appearance as "Vika" after spending his redshirt fall under the name David on the Griz roster. Both are correct, though he prefers Vika, which is short for Kawika (pronounced ka-VEE-ka), the Hawaiian translation for David.

Solid showings as a redshirt-freshman in the spring of 2016 and into fall camp earned him playing time in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams duty, where he made 14 total tackles.

"Last year was my learning experience," said Fa'atuiese (pronounced FA-AH-tooee-essay). "This year, I know the routine."

The same is true for sophomore OLBs Cy Sirmon (6-3, 236) Dante Olson (6-3, 223) and the more seasoned reserves like juniors Gage Smith (6-3, 206) and Shayne Cochran (6-1, 221).

The best scenario for Niekamp and the Griz is that the young guys continue to impress and push the incumbents on the field this fall. The up-and-comers will then be prepared to take over in a year -- both Strahm and Banks have one season of eligibility remaining -- or maybe even challenge for some playing time in 2017.

Competition is key in the results-driven game of football, Niekamp said, and his starters are looking forward to proving themselves all over again when their turn comes again.

They can hardly wait in fact.

"I have to keep my eye on Strahm. Every day he hops in a drill he's not supposed to be in and I've got to yank his butt out of it," Niekamp said with a grin.

The Griz have another scrimmage scheduled at 5 p.m. Friday back at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, which is open to the public and free. The annual Grizzly Spring Game is the following Saturday, April 22, in Butte. Admission there is $5 for adults and $3 for children under 12.

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