It took all of one spring practice for first-year Montana head football coach Bobby Hauck to size up Dante Olson’s talent level.
“I remember watching him in that first practice thinking he could be our best player,” says Hauck, who replaced Bob Stitt this season.
It appears Hauck’s assessment was dead on.
Olson has risen from special teams standout and backup linebacker to the nation’s leading tackler, posting jaw-dropping statistics that have landed him a spot on the Buchanan Award watch list. The former Cascade Christian star, who is a redshirt junior, has made 119 tackles this season in his first campaign as a starter for the NCAA Division I Grizzlies (4-4, 2-3 Big Sky Conference).
The 21-year-old tops both the FCS and FBS with an average of 14.9 tackles per game (New Mexico State’s Javahn Fergurson is first in the FBS with a 14.1 average).
The 6-foot-3, 237-pound Olson needs just 12 more this year to become UM’s all-time leading single-season tackler. Linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren’s record of 130 was set in 2015.
Olson also ranks second in the conference in sacks and third in tackles for loss.
Montana next travels to face Southern Utah (1-7, 1-4) on Saturday. Kickoff at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City, Utah, is scheduled for noon Pacific Time. The contest can be seen on Root Sports Northwest.
The Grizzlies are set to play at Oregon next fall.
Following his time with the Challengers, Olson moved to Missoula, Montana, to begin his college career. He was recognized as the program’s defensive scout team player of the year in 2015. That same season, former Eagle Point star Tyrone Holmes was named the Buchanan Award winner following a senior season where he totaled a national-best 18 sacks for the Grizzlies.
The next season as a redshirt freshman, Olson registered 29 tackles in 11 games, claimed Academic All-Big Sky recognition and earned Hauck Family Special Teams Player of the Year honors.
Last year, he was second-team all-league on special teams and also made the Academic All-Big Sky roster (he has a 4.0 GPA). A repeat winner of the Hauck Family Special Teams accolade, Olson added 38 tackles as a backup linebacker.
“The last couple years have been a good time to learn,” say Olson, who has one year of eligibility remaining. “It was a good experience learning from the older guys.”
Given the opportunity, Olson has made 2018 a year to remember. He’s been named the FCS national defensive player of the week and was spotlighted three times as the Root Sports Big Sky defensive player of the week.
The attention is flattering, Olson says, but mostly equates to background noise as he focuses on the next game.
“It is a blessing from God,” he says. “But like coach and everyone said, that stuff can’t get to your head.”
Olson had his first career interception against Northern Iowa on Sept. 1, returning it 26 yards. He made a sack for a loss of 9 yards that same game.
“That was surreal moment,” Olson says of the takeaway. “Definitely a moment to remember.”
He collected 16 tackles (including 3.5 for loss), forced a fumble and logged a career-high two sacks against Drake the following week before making another pick against Western Illinois on Sept. 15.
Olson turned in a career-best 24 tackles against Cal Poly on Sept. 29, marking the second highest single-game tackling performance in school history. He added 19 tackles and two forced fumbles against Portland State last month.
“His chance to contribute has increased significantly,” Hauck says. “He didn’t get on the field (as much before this season). And he’s played exceedingly well. ... He’s making plays. That is where it starts, with work ethic and effort level. He pretty instinctively wants to put pads on people. He’s not a reacher, but a tackler. He wants to knock people down.”
Olson has added 25 to 30 pounds in college, he speculates. He credits Montana strength and conditioning coach Matt Nicholson with helping him grow.
“I’m eating a lot of calories,” Olson says with a laugh.
Olson is a business management major who is taking four classes. Over the summer, he began mentoring a class of third graders in an underprivileged area of Northern California as part of the No Excuses University program, encouraging kids to earn a college degree.
Balancing life is key, Olson says.
“A lot of things go hand in hand,” he adds. “You have to have your priorities straight. Time management stuff. It’s easy to get behind.”
Nothing seems to be standing in Olson’s way now.
“It’s been a dream come true,” he says. “A dream since I was born really. I have been around football all my life. It’s been awesome so far. This year has been a fun ride so far.”
Reach freelance writer Dan Jones at email@example.com