MISSOULA — At safety, Montana is in Strong hands.
Justin Strong, one of the few seniors in the Griz secondary, is coming off a standout junior season.
Sixty-eight tackles, three tackles for loss, three interceptions, a fumble recovery, six passes defended, the list goes on. His number of interceptions were fourth in the Big Sky and his tackles put him in the top 30 in the conference as well.
This season, the expectations for Strong remain high.
“He's gonna be a key part (of our team),” safeties coach Shann Schillinger said of Strong’s capabilities for the season. “If we're gonna be good on defense we need Justin Strong to have a good year and I'm confident that he will."
That praise rings true from Strong’s fellow starting safety in sophomore Josh Sandry.
“I love Justin a lot,” Sandry said. “He’s a great athlete. He's such a good football player. He's athletic. He's strong. He's just got a nose for the ball and I wouldn't be surprised if you see that kid playing on Sundays."
Even with the pressure, Strong’s production goals for the 2017 season aren’t numbers-based, but rather focused on having everyone around him do well.
“My goals for myself are really team success,” Strong said. “Whatever comes to me as an individual, I’ll take that. As long as I can see everybody getting theirs, eating, that makes me happy.”
The Griz are in capable hands too at strong safety with Sandry.
Sandry posted 30 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss and 1½ sacks last season in his redshirt-freshman debut. Like Strong, he’s not concerned about numbers, but instead the output of the secondary and the rest of the defense.
“He’s all about the process,” Schillinger said. “He’s one day at a time. He really is. He’s a level-headed kid that when he has success, you can’t tell. And when he’s down you can’t tell. That’s what I like about him. Josh is what you’re looking for in a safety and we’re excited about him.”
Strong’s elated about Sandry too.
Even though they only started two games side-by-side last season, their chemistry is solid from both playing together and living relatively close to each other last year.
“I love playing with Sandry,” Strong said. “We’re both out there doing whatever to make a play, whether we gotta jump over 10 people to make that play, we’re gonna make that jump and that’s what I love (about) being about out there with Sandry. If I’m not making a play, I can trust that 1-3 is gonna be there for me. It’s a trust thing.”
Behind Strong and Sandry, Schillinger’s excited about several of his other safeties too.
Schillinger said that seniors Korey Alexander and Mick Delaney are doing well and that junior Evan Epperly was off to a good start during camp.
“He’s a guy that I’m really confident we can put anywhere and he’s gonna get us through,” Schillinger said of Epperly.
SCRIMMAGE LEFTOVERS: The safeties were stoked about redshirt freshman cornerback Lewis Cowans’ pick-six on Monday.
“It was pretty exciting to see a young guy like him make a big play like that,” Sandry said.
Strong added: “That was everybody doing their job. Everybody did their job. You look to the right, that receiver was locked up. You looked to the left, other receiver was locked up. Everybody was in the right spot. We just executed at the point of attack. … Lewis Cowans stepped up and there was no lag.”