SPOKANE — Montana head coach Bobby Hauck doesn’t recall being asked about linebacker Dante Olson during the Big Sky Conference media days last July.
Olson was a player who had yet to break out. And with the return of All-American linebacker Josh Buss, last year’s preseason defensive MVP — not to mention Hauck’s return to the league — Olson didn’t register on the radar.
One year later, Olson was one of the main focuses of media attention Monday at the Big Sky Kickoff. He was named the Big Sky’s preseason defensive MVP after a season in which he earned seven All-America honors and finished third in voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in the FCS.
“There was no one asking me about Dante Olson at this deal a year ago, even though I thought he was probably our best player,” Hauck said. “It’s interesting, but you know what you know. It’s cool for him to be the preseason defensive player of the year. It means he had a great year last year, and certainly his football team needs him to do that again.”
The 6-foot-3, 237-pound Olson was also tabbed an all-conference preseason inside linebacker and was one of three Montana players to make the team, compared to Montana State’s five.
Grounded in his approach, Olson doesn’t marvel in the light of the accolades. He didn’t even know he earned the preseason honor until he was shown a tweet about it.
Still, Olson was grateful to be recognized by the league’s coaches after his season that included a school-record 151 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.
“It’s definitely a huge honor,” Olson said. “Any time you get something like that, it’s a big recognition, especially with our conference. Can’t read too much into the preseason stuff because I hold myself and the team holds themselves to high expectations and standards. Haven’t done anything yet to prove ourselves this year.”
Several coaches around the league had high praise for Olson.
UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins coached against Olson’s dad when he was at Willamette and knew about Olson before he started coaching the Aggies.
“I love that dude. Well, I love him and hate him,” Hawkins said. “They asked me if you could take one guy, and I said him. He is a nightmare. He is a nightmare. I said, ‘I lost a lot of sleep when we played you.’ He’s such a great kid, plays with such energy. Their whole defense attacks your fanny. He can run. He’s tough. He can hit.”
Montana State coach Jeff Choate similarly praised Olson.
“He’s such a great instinctual football player,” Choate said. “One of the things that sets him apart is his straight-line speed. He can track down guys at just about any angle. Has the ability to defeat blocks with his hands but also has the unique ability to slip blocks, which not all linebackers have that combination.
"Usually you’re one or the other. Dante seems to be able to play both styles and is a tremendous tackler. Once he gets his hands on you, you’re going on the ground.”
Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best, who recruited Olson lightly out of high school, used the term ‘magnet’ to describe Olson, which he had heard someone else use.
“He’s a magnet to the ball,” Best said. “You can tell he’s a junkie in terms of a film junkie. He knows things before things happen. He must carry a crystal ball with him. He finds a way to be around the ball all the time. So ‘magnet’ probably fits his play more than anything.
“From an outsider’s perspective, he’s nothing short of one of the better players in this league and quite certainly this nation at this level.”
Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie also turned the talk about Olson to the national level and said he’d give Olson his vote for the Buchanan Award.
“An excellent, excellent football player that you got to account for,” Phenicie said. “Everything that comes together with him, it’s a good deal. Just watching him on film, it takes a play or two to go, ‘Oh, that’s the guy.’
"The thing that makes it even harder to go against is he’s such a nice guy. Buchanan Award candidate, he’s got my vote.”
Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum, who recruited Olson, agreed in a sense.
“Last year, I thought he should have got every accolade known to mankind just for what he did,” Barnum said.
Montana State’s do-everything player Troy Andersen landed on the preseason all-conference team at the fullback position.
It was quite the change from the end of last season, when the now-junior was a unanimous first-team quarterback. He now could be potentially playing linebacker this year.
“It’s almost like a tip of the hat,” Choate said. “It’s like, ‘What do you want to call him?’ We could have called him the ‘all back,’ I guess. Wherever you put him he’s going to make plays, I know that.”
Montana State had five preseason all-conference picks, the most under Choate. The others are senior offensive tackle Mitch Brott, senior outside linebacker Bryce Sterk, senior cornerback Greg Filer and senior safety Brayden Konkol.
Sterk was second in the Big Sky in sacks and tackles for loss last season. Konkol paced the Cats with 93 tackles. Filer had two interceptions. Brott has started in all 35 of his games at MSU.
“I think we’re a more mature team. Those guys are in their junior and senior years. It’s not like you’ve got a bunch of guys that are just flashes in the pan.”
Montana’s other players to land on the preseason list are junior wide receiver Sammy Akem and junior linebacker Jace Lewis, who earned the nod as a special teams contributor.
Akem led the Big Sky with 13 touchdown receptions last year. Lewis, a Townsend native, piled up 62 tackles, fifth on the team and third among returners.
UC Davis senior quarterback Jake Maier was tabbed the league’s preseason offensive MVP. He threw for 3,931 yards and 34 touchdowns on his way to being named the conference’s player of the year in 2018.
“I’m grateful and I’m proud of it, but at the same time it’s more important what you do in the fall than what you do in the preseason,” Maier said. “We as a team have not proven anything yet, and I haven’t proven anything yet.
"I think it’s important for us to keep that perspective. All the things that come before we actually prove it really don’t mean anything. But like I said, I’m grateful, and I know my family would be proud as well.”
Weber State led the way with seven players named to the preseason all-conference team. Eleven of the 13 programs have at least one player make the team.