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Griz senior finds home on offensive line
Its a pretty straight shot over I-90 from Spokane to Missoula. But the path has had plenty of twists and turns for Montana senior Kjelby Oiland.
Oiland, the Grizzlies’ 6-foot-4, 290-pound center, committed to Montana out of Ferris High School, then changed his mind and went to UNLV to play for former Griz coach Bobby Hauck.
Oiland played on the defensive line as a true freshman for the Rebels, but an injury left him thinking Vegas wasn’t the place for him.
He transferred to Montana, where he soon found himself on the offensive side of the ball at left guard. After a season there, he was moved to center, where he’s played for the last two seasons, save one game last fall when he was suspended shortly after his best friend since seventh grade, fellow offensive lineman Trevor Poole, was arrested for buying a “party drug.”
All those detours have led Oiland – and Poole, for that matter – to a good place as a starter on the Grizzlies’ front five, which – at least until last week – looked like one of the best in the Big Sky Conference if not all of the FCS.
Oiland got the attention of Montana’s coaching staff when he attended the Grizzlies’ summer camp as a junior. Not long after, both he and Poole were offered scholarships.
“I went into my senior year waiting on other schools,” said Oiland, whose unique first name is Norwegian in derivation. “Idaho was kind of interested in me, Wyoming was, but I never really got in contact with them. Late in my senior season I committed to Montana. A couple of days after that I get a call from (UNLV) and they want to offer me down there. Next thing you know I’m taking a recruiting visit. They offered Trevor and me. It was kind of a two-fer deal because we were best friends.
“I had a great time and they have great facilities down there and I fell in love with that coaching staff. I have the utmost respect for Bobby Hauck and those guys down there. A couple of days down there will kind of change a 17-year-old’s mind.”
Literally minutes after arriving back in Spokane, Griz coaches Bob Beers, Robin Pflugrad and Mike Breske were at Oiland’s house.
“It was kind of tough going from Bobby’s speech about how he wanted me … to Beers and them giving their speech,” Oiland said. “It was kind of a tough decision, but looking back at it I was way too quick in the process. I never went on my official visit here, which I regret. I never really came to Missoula except for that one time in camp. I think if I would have come on my visit here, I never would have been a Rebel.”
But a Rebel he was. He was one of an astounding 22 true freshmen who played for Hauck that season. He played in five games, registered six tackles and pulled some spot duty as the long snapper when the starter went down with an injury.
“My first-ever play in college was long snapping against Wisconsin when they had JJ Watt and that big defensive line,” Oiland said. “It was intense.”
Oiland suffered a concussion in a game against Nevada, which kept him out four weeks, then was diagnosed with mononucleosis, which kept him out the rest of the season.
“So I wasn’t traveling with the team and not knowing many people except football guys kind of made me homesick,” Oiland said. “At the end of the season I went to coach (Kraig) Paulson – I was really close with him and Coach Ty (Gregorak) – and told them I wasn’t very comfortable living down there. They told me to play it out until the spring and Bobby tried to have older guys surround me, but I had already made my decision. I wanted to come to Montana and play for coach (Pflugrad).”
Nearly as soon as Oiland arrived in Missoula he was moved to the offensive line.
“At that time we felt like our depth was pretty good on the defensive line and we really needed an interior lineman who could come in and help us right away and he did that for us,” Griz offensive line coach Scott Gragg said.
“That was pretty much all Coach Beers’ decision,” Oiland recalled. “I came in during winter session and not even a week after getting there Coach Beers called me into his office and said ‘I want you to play guard for us.’ I was kind of in shock, but looking back at it I do not regret it at all. I started as a sophomore and played with some great guys. I have the utmost respect for Jon Opperud, Chuck Burton and those guys I played with. They took me under their wing. That was one of my greatest years playing college football.”
After a year at guard, Oiland was moved again, this time to center where he earned honorable mention all-Big Sky honors as a junior.
“I hate to use the word desperation, but we were kind of at a point where we were really thin at center,” Gragg said.
Now every offensive play – including short snaps for field goals and extra points – starts with Oiland. Not only that, but the center is charged with the responsibility of calling the blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage.
Is there a play in all of football that is taken for granted as much as the snap from center?
“You take it for granted until you get one that can’t get it back to the quarterback,” Gragg said with a laugh. “Not to use the word desperation, but I’m going to use it, when you try to run an up-tempo offense, those snaps can be errant at times. He came in and was our most consistent guy, doing an awesome job doing the thing that we do often take for granted. Knock on wood, we haven’t had any issues this year. He was usually good for one errant snap a game; that was usually due more to fatigue than anything else. Once we got a handle on that we were in good shape.”
And Oiland has grown into his position as the quarterback of the offensive line.
“Everyone is depending on you to make the right call,” Oiland said. “Sometimes I can see Danny (Kistler) over there screaming at me … but as Coach Gragg and Coach Beers always said, I’m in charge, so don’t listen to what anyone else says. Make your point and make your decision. Danny is such a great leader on the field that I do look to him sometimes and he communicates to me, which helps tremendously.”
A hamstring injury in fall camp hindered Oiland this season to the point that he sat out the game against Oklahoma Panhandle State.
“On a scale of one to 10 – you want most of your offensive linemen to be intense competitors – and he’s probably an 11,” Gragg said. “That’s the biggest source of frustration for him, when he’s not able to go 100 percent. His demeanor demands that he plays at 100 percent and competes and is aggressive. That part of it is frustrating for him. He has done well managing that. He’s probably the most honest about his ability to perform; he’ll let me know when he needs to sit out a series. That says a lot for his trust in the team, too. Logan (Hines) has filled in and done a great job. Obviously he trusts Logan’s ability.”
Now as a senior, Oiland is in the role Opperud and Burton played for him: a leader and role model for the younger players. That point was driven home when he found himself suspended for a game last season by new coach Mick Delaney.
“One thing that transpired in the last year that I believe has helped me tremendously is that incident that happened last year with Trevor,” Oiland said. “That was a wake-up call for some of the guys on this team that were involved with that. I’m kind of glad that happened, but not in a good way. I’ve really matured since that incident.
“Me and Coach Gragg had our differences up until that point. I took it as I need to mature because I’m not that young guy who looks up to older guys now; it’s the opposite. I realized that coming into my senior season I need to be a leader on this team and mature. I believe I did that and I have the utmost respect for Coach Gragg. I trust him now and respect him even more as a person.”
Poole, who was reinstated to the team, has seen the difference in his friend – and himself.
“That whole situation opened both of our eyes and we realized what we had to lose,” Poole said. “We both really matured and knew we had to make the right decisions from now on. We’ve really looked out for each other to make sure we don’t do anything stupid. It definitely helped him mature a lot, and me too.”
The offensive line comes into Saturday’s homecoming game against Portland State off of a dismal performance in a loss last week at Northern Arizona. Neither Gragg nor Oiland will argue that.
“First of all, that was probably one of the worst games that me and the offensive line have played in the past three years,” Oiland said. “We knew NAU was a good front, but I think we kind of took it for granted. The previous three teams we played were kind of finesse, trying to play the gaps and whatnot. Against NAU, there were some guys on that d-line who were quick and they blitzed quite a few times.”
Griz quarterback Jordan Johnson was sacked five times.
“It was embarrassing looking back and half the time JJ’s on the ground,” Oiland said. “We take pride in protecting whichever quarterback is back there, but especially JJ because he’s such a great leader. When you see him on the ground and you know it’s your fault, it’s probably one of the worst feelings that you can ever have.”
Gragg said all of the problems that surfaced last week can be fixed.
“I told the guys that one game doesn’t define you, but how you respond to that game can define you,” Gragg said. “To their credit – and not just the offensive line, but the whole team in general - they have faced adversity and they don’t blink. They put their pads on, go to work and get things fixed.”
Gragg, Oiland and Poole agreed that Portland State will see a different offensive line this week.
“We trust each other and trust is the biggest thing,” Poole said. “I think we’ll come back full force and show what we’re made of. We have each other’s backs. It’s a brotherhood and you can’t beat that.”