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Griz linebacker James Banks falls to the ground after nearly intercepting a pass during a game against Idaho State last season. 

KIRA VERCRUYSSEN, Missoulian

MISSOULA — When Montana came out its 2016 spring football practices, the Griz knew they had a young sophomore linebacker on the roster who could be something special.

They just didn’t know how much Josh Buss was going to do.

“Obviously we didn’t anticipate 20 tackles for loss,” linebackers coach Travis Niekamp said. “Josh is a frickin' warrior. He’s what you want as far as how hard he practices and the amount of energy he puts into things. He’s a complete stud. He obviously plays the game the way it needs to be played and that’s hard and fast. He continues to approach every day like that.”

Buss’ 20 tackles for loss paced the Big Sky and was 10th in all of the FCS. And every person ahead of him on the national leaderboard was a junior or a senior.

“I think to expect that Josh is gonna have another 20 tackles for loss this fall is probably unrealistic, but I think he’s gonna be very productive and I think he’s gonna be a difference-maker for us,” Niekamp said. “That’s what he is. He is an explosive football player that can change games because of plays he can make, whether that’s stripping the football, creating a sack, getting an interception, I mean, he's kind of a 5-tool football player like in baseball players. He can hit for power, he can run, he can field, he can throw, he can kinda do the same thing on the football field. He runs, he hits, he can cover, he can rush a quarterback, he can tackle. He's a game-changer for us."

Even though Buss’ numbers stood out across the league, he thinks about production differently.

“Personal numbers don’t mean anything if team numbers aren’t where they want to be,” Buss said. “I think this year, everyone has the same goals, same focus. Everyone’s working toward the same goal. Everyone has to do their job and if everyone’s doing their job, that’s how one person gets a tackle, because 10 other guys are doing what they’re supposed to do. That goes for everyone on the team.”

Buss isn’t the only linebacker powerhouse returning for the Griz. All three of Montana’s starters at linebacker from last season are back for more.

James Banks, a senior outside linebacker and Connor Strahm, a redshirt-senior inside linebacker, also started every game last season for the Griz.

Banks had 54 tackles for the Griz last season, the sixth highest mark on the team. He also contributed two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.

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But according to Niekamp, those aren’t his biggest strengths.

“Jimmy’s the kind of kid that if he never played a snap of football for us, he would make our football team better just because of the way he carries himself on the football field from a practice standpoint,” Niekamp said. “He’s prepared every single day for football. He’s not afraid to help the younger guys learn, explain things to them. He’s awesome along those lines. He’s a phenomenal student and a great human being. He’s a lot of fun to be around. He’s a tremendous leader for us, not just because of football but because of everything else. He might be the best leader we have on our football team as far as what you want, not necessarily vocally, but from what you want from ‘here’s how you go about being a Griz football player.'”

Strahm, Montana’s returning starter at middle linebacker, was second on the team last year with 70 total tackles. He also contributed eight tackles for loss, 4½ sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles.

Other middle linebackers in redshirt-sophomore Vika Fa’atulese, redshirt-junior Shayne Cochran and redshirt-freshman Trase Le Texier will be dueling it out for the starting spot for the first game, as Strahm will be serving a minimum a 1.1 game suspension due to a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence.

Montana’s first scrimmage is on Monday at 4 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It is open to the public.

Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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