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Quite a rush

For someone as genuinely nice as Tyrone Holmes is off the field, it’s amazing to consider the contrast in how difficult he makes life for quarterbacks when he’s on it.

Holmes was regarded as one of the more affable players during a standout run at Eagle Point High in football, basketball and track and field, and none of that changed when he opted to compete for the University of Montana football team.

But while he was a terror in the trenches for the Eagles during his prep days, he’s upped his game considerably as a senior defensive end for the Grizzlies.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder finished the regular season as the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision leader in sacks with 14, and padded that total with three more during last week’s first-round playoff victory over South Dakota State.

The 17 sacks eclipse Holmes’ total through his initial three seasons at Montana (16.5), and he has no desire to slow down as the Grizzlies face a mammoth second-round matchup at North Dakota State Saturday.

“I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t matter to me,” the 22-year-old Holmes said Tuesday of being the nation’s sack leader. “As a pass rusher, I’m a super-competitive guy and my goal has always been that I want to be the best and that’s all I think about in the offseason. There’s a sense of accomplishment there (in reaching the top), but also a hunger to be even better and do more.”

In comparison, Penn State’s Carl Nassib leads the NCAA Division I FBS with 15.5 sacks, while Matt Judon of Grand Valley State has 20 at the Division II level.

Holmes ranks second in Montana history with 33.5 career sacks and needs 4.5 more sacks to surpass the school’s all-time leader, Zack Wagenmann. Holmes is also tied for second with Tim Bush in school history in tackles for loss with 48.5 overall — ranking 10th at the FCS level with 20.5 this season — and needs five more to eclipse Wagenmann, who had 53.

No part of Holmes’ breakout senior campaign has come as a surprise to Montana head coach Bob Stitt, who took notice of the defensive lineman’s impact early on during this, his first season at the helm.

“He’s successful just because of the type of person he is and his work ethic,” said Stitt. “He doesn’t say a whole lot, he just comes out and practices and plays the same way every single day 100 miles per hour. It made our lives on offense through spring practice and fall camp miserable having to try and block him, and so I know what our opponents are dealing with.”

For his efforts, Holmes was announced Monday as one of three finalists for the STATS FCS defensive player of the year with fellow Big Sky Conference standouts James Cowser (Southern Utah defensive end) and Patrick Onwuasor (Portland State free safety). The winner will be announced on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas.

Cowser was recently named Big Sky defensive player of the year, although his totals through 12 games were lower than first-teamer Holmes in sacks (12) and tackles for loss (19).

With Holmes’ help, the defense for Montana (8-4) is allowing an average of 23.6 points and 385.3 yards per game with 41 sacks and 12 interceptions.

“People feed off his play,” said Stitt. “He can come up with a play, if you’re struggling a little bit, and it will just ignite the entire unit. What a tremendous player he is.”

Holmes said the effort has been the same as a four-year contributor in Montana — the last three as a starter — but there’s just something to this being his final go-round that has helped him take his play up a notch.

“There is an added sense of urgency when it’s your last year,” he admitted. “I’ve tried over the years to play each game like it’s my last game, but when it actually is, it creates a whole other level of meaning. You get one last shot to be remembered and you want to leave a legacy, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”

That said, what he’s been able to accomplish certainly isn’t easy. It’s taken him awhile to become a successful pass rusher and chalk up sacks, and he gives most of the credit to the Montana coaches who have helped him hone his skills and kept him healthy over the years.

“I think throughout my career I’ve put myself in position to make plays, it’s just getting the quarterback on the ground is something that has been a little more difficult,” he said. “I’ve gotten to them, I’ve just had a lot of missed opportunities if you go through my film over the years. This year I’ve put more focus on getting the guy on the ground.”

“(Sacks) are very, very hard to come by,” added Holmes, who will graduate this spring with a marketing degree. “Coming through my career, they’re elusive and I think I just try to appreciate every one I can get because I don’t know how long it will be to the next one. I’m always hoping I can get one every play, but that’s just me.”

And when it does finally happen, the typically reserved Holmes said it’s not by mistake that a little exuberance comes into play.

“It’s honestly the best feeling that I think I can have personally,” Holmes said of getting a sack. “You just think about all the time, all the hours, all the practice and bashing your head into sweaty dudes ... all those moments and effort put into a split second on that elusive play that you’re chasing after. If I get home (to the quarterback), it’s an unbelievable feeling and that’s why you get so much celebration from guys who are able to pull it off.”

Through it all, Holmes said every second has been worth it, from choosing Montana — “I couldn’t be happier with my decision,” he noted — to a senior season that saw his Grizzlies upset four-time defending national champion North Dakota State, 38-35, on ESPN in their opener before needing a regular season-ending three-game winning streak to secure an FCS playoff berth.

“There’s a lot of resolve with this team,” he said. “There was a point in the season when we were 4-4 and everyone could have packed it in and called it a season. But, as a testament to the guys on this team, we were mentally strong enough to pull through and here we are with a shot against the defending national champions again, and that’s huge for this program to get back on track.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Montana senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes, a former Eagle Point High standout, leads the nation with 17 sacks and is one of three finalists for national defensive player of the year honors. PHOTO FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
Holmes