MISSOULA – Defensive backs are the last line of defense on the gridiron. While linemen battle in the trenches and linebackers protect the middle of the field, it’s the secondary’s job to prevent the long ball. Montana believes its personnel this season can do just that.

“They’re very disciplined,” said Montana head coach Bob Stitt. “Something that hurt us last year was giving up big plays, and with what our defensive line can do getting pressure, I think our [defensive backs] can stay disciplined, keep their eyes on the ball, and be able to break on the ball, make some plays, and get some turnovers. And that’s what we’ve seen.”

Stitt knows if your team’s offense is going to air out the football, your defense must able to defend the skies as well, something his team struggled with in 2016.

Boasting the second-best passing offense and pass defense in the Big Sky Conference last season, it was the deep ball that hurt Montana. Over the team’s eight conference games, the Griz allowed 20 scores via the air. Nine of those scores were longer than 20 yards, and five went for 40 yards or more.

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But if spring ball is any indication, the Montana secondary seems to be playing more aggressive. In its three spring scrimmages, Montana’s defensive backs forced eight interceptions, matching its total from 11 games last season.

“Anybody on the defensive side is capable of making those plays,” said defensive back Markell Sanders. “It’s just happening to be in the right spot at the right time, meaning: We’re doing our job. And I think that’s what the coaches like to see, is everybody getting in the right spot and understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished.”

One of those defensive backs who put himself in the right spot this spring was sophomore safety Josh Sandry. The Bigfork native led the team with four interceptions in the spring, returning two for touchdowns.

Sandry says his experience gained from playing as a freshman has made returning for his second season a little more comfortable.

“Just the maturity level, I’d like to say I’m more mature,” Sandry said with a smile. “I’m more comfortable out here, and I know the defense better.”

With the departure of starting defensive backs Yamen Sanders and JR Nelson, Sandry and Markell Sanders will be two of the secondary’s leaders.

“It’s exciting, because it’s a challenge, and I think that taking on that responsibility only allows you to grow as a person and a player,” Markell Sanders said. “I think that being able to come in here, help out, and be a leader or help out wherever is needed, it’s a great experience for everybody here, because again, it gets everybody on the same page and everybody moving in the right direction.”