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Big Griz on campus: Bienemann is coming into his own
Alex Bienemann came out of Denver’s Regis Jesuit High with a body made for defensive tackle – 6-foot-2 and 260 or so pounds.
People noticed. UNLV’s football program made a scholarship offer his junior year. Colorado came around, and so did Colorado State, and then as the 2011 signing date came closer the Eastern Washington Eagles beat feet to his door.
By January 2010 Bienemann was feeling the heat. The Buffaloes and Rams had fallen away and he didn’t know where to go, what to do, and February was closing fast.
“They don’t really tell you ahead of time how stressful recruiting can be,” he said.
Then, at the 11th hour, the Montana Grizzlies called. Mick Delaney and then-head coach Robin Pflugrad made pitches. Bienemann made a trip to Missoula.
“Ryan Fetherston was my host,” Bienemann said. “I had a really good, fun trip. And they brought me down to the field and it was kind of cold, there was snow. They had crowd noise piped in, and we could hear the noise coming down the tunnel. They had the Appalachian State game from December (2009) up on the big screen.
“That was a hell of a recruiting tool.”
Bienemann was a Grizzly.
“That kind of made the decision for me, at that point,” he said. “The week they had me up was the week I was going to go to Montana State. But I just did a lot of research online and saw what the Grizzlies were all about.
“I was more interested in playing in front of some crazy crowds and in some big games.”
Not quite three years later, Bienemann has seen his fair share of showdowns: Friday night playoff lights against Northern Iowa and Sam Houston State, and a split with the Bobcats.
And to think he almost didn’t stick around to see them.
There were times, Bienemann said, that he didn’t think he’d last. The adjustment to the college game can be difficult when you’re no longer the biggest kid on the block.
“That first fall camp through that winter, I was having a hard time,” said Bienemann, now a 290-pound junior. “Some of the older guys, I was having trouble getting along with them.”
Fetherston, Bienemann’s former host, rode him hard in practice. So did defensive tackle Bryan Waldhauser. They were coaches on the field, at times supportive but often blistering.
Frustrated, Bienemann leaned on teammates like Derek Crittenden, Jordan Johnson and Danny Kistler.
“I don’t know if I’d have actually ended up staying without them,” he says now. “Those galvanizing relationships I gained those first few months were really important. If it wasn’t for those first few friends I made, I’m not sure I would still be a Grizzly.”
This isn’t too uncommon: Players leave programs, and a good many more think about it at one time or another. Of course many more stay, and Waldhauser makes no apologies for dealing out some tough love.
“Somebody had to,” said the 2011 all-Big Sky Conference pick, who now works at Wells Fargo in Missoula. “It’s not all sunshine and rainbows out there – I think everybody sees that now.
“But I think a couple years ago everybody thought, ‘This is easy.’ ”
Heading into its game Saturday at Northern Colorado, Montana is 2-3 and off to its first 0-2 start in Big Sky play since 1992.
Coming off a turbulent spring in which Pflugrad was fired – while the Griz were working in new coordinators on offense and defense – the program obviously hoped for a better start.
Appalachian State and Eastern Washington, playing at home, didn’t cooperate. Neither did an overdue Northern Arizona squad. All three put up big numbers against a defense that has nine new starters.
Bienemann is one of those nine.
“Teamwise and abilitywise, we should be 5-0,” he asserts. “It’s not that we’re not battle-tested, but it’s hard to make that shift from being those backup guys to those guys who have to make the plays.
“We’re not overwhelmed by it, but we’re just a little short on getting turnovers or getting stops.”
Jim Benemann, Alex’s father, is a TV personality in Denver who took the “I” out of his last name to ease pronunciation (BEN-uh-men).
Jim played a little football in high school but was more of a hockey fan. His brother Tom, however, earned a football scholarship to Minnesota, and Tom’s son Troy was a standout tight end at Washington State.
“That’s when Alex realized that being a college football player, in a good program, would be very cool,” Jim said.
While CU and CSU showed interest, Northern Colorado oddly did not. For a long time Eastern Washington had the lead.
“Coach (Beau) Baldwin really wanted him,” Jim Benemann said. “They were very aggressive and great guys. We were really close to committing to EWU. It was late in the process but of course when Montana offers – at least in our minds – that’s the 800-pound gorilla in the FCS. I think it was an easy decision.”
The Grizzlies got a very good recruit.
“Alex was an incredible high school football player,” said UM defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa, who looked up Bienemann’s tapes when he came on staff in early 2011. “He did some special, special things. And I think coming into college, especially at this place, he faced some challenges he didn’t have to face before. He had to learn how to deal with them.”
Bienemann plays the “three-technique” at defensive tackle, meaning he mans the gap between center and guard and goes from there.
“From Day One of camp I’ve told these cats, when you put your hand on the ground your whole purpose is to make a football play,” Suiaunoa said. “You’ll know right off the bat, depending on what kind of scheme you get, if you have a chance to make a play or not.”
And if you can’t make the play, “take on two” – be so disruptive that it takes two players to block you.
This is the glamorous world of the D-tackle.
Bienemann does all these duties with skill. What can and will separate him – putting him up there with Waldhauser or UM standouts Alan Saenz, Blake Horgan and Kelley Bryant – is making the play when it isn’t necessarily sent your way.
“He’s doing a great job,” Suiaunoa says. “He’s doing his job in terms of games, but in terms of production, in terms of the plays he’s capable of making, he can do more. And he’s taking that to heart.”
Bienemann has 14 tackles, including a sack, this season. He and a young defense are hungry for another shot, this time at a less-mobile quarterback – UNC’s Seth Lobato – than they’ve seen at Eastern (Vernon Adams) or App State (Jamal Jackson).
The sting of two straight Big Sky losses remains.
“The guys we have now are scrappy, chip-on-our-shoulder guys who don’t like to lose,” Bienemann said. “There’s this intense fire that’s building up, and we haven’t found a way to utilize it like we should. But now that our backs are against the wall, sparks are going to fly.”
That’s the idea: That all these recruits will eventually turn that corner from young player to established Griz.
“For a lot of kids, myself included, it’s a very humbling experience,” Waldhauser, who was a walk-on, said of those first days of college football. “But he never lost confidence in himself. You learn to take coaching from the coaches and the other players.
“That’s when he made his biggest strides, when he got that mental part down.”
Bienemann, who has since seen his freshman sister Madison join him at UM, will make his sixth start Saturday. He’s glad he stayed.
“There’s not a lack of desire on this team,” Bienemann says. “Everybody on the defense wants to win, for Josh Harris and Josh Stuberg and the rest of the seniors.
“If I was a betting man, I’d bet we’ll go 6-0 the rest of the season.”