MISSOULA — Victor Butler would take full swings with the blocking pads, sending his younger siblings flying through the air before their bodies landed on the grass out front of the family home. Most of Butler’s eight brothers would cry. Justin Strong remembers thinking how much fun it was to receive, and in turn dole out, physical contact.
“That’s where my love of hitting comes from,” Strong says years later. “Now every time I step on the field, my goal is to be as physical as I possibly can at all points of the game.”
Butler, a stout defensive end who went on to earn All-Pac 10 honors at Oregon State before embarking on a professional football career that is still going, was the first in the family to use the fearless mentality to his advantage on the gridiron. Now it’s Strong, a senior safety for the Montana Grizzlies, who is striving to put fear on film every chance he gets.
“He is a twitchy, explosive kid who loves contact,” UM second-year safeties coach Shann Schillinger said on Wednesday. “I’ve been around some good ones here. This kid has some ability that not a lot have had. He doesn’t back down to anyone.”
Strong is in the midst of his second and final season at Montana. The former Oregon State transfer has played just 13 games as a Griz. But he’s wasted no time affirming a reputation as the hardest hitter on the team and one of the most feared thumpers in the league despite missing the first game of his senior season and playing the last three with a club cast on his left hand.
Following last season, a campaign that saw Strong finish third on the Griz with 68 tackles and lead the team with three interceptions, his prolific string of big hits also earned recognition. His teammates voted him as the winner of the Golden Helmet Award, UM’s annual award for the hardest hitting Griz.
He joined a prestigious group that includes UM legends like Tim Hauck, Mike Rankin, Todd Ericson, Blaine McElmurry, Jason Crebo, Vince Huntsberger, Dave DeCoite, Kroy Biermann and Colt Anderson. More recent winners also include Caleb McSurdy, Brock Coyle, Jeremiah Kose and current Griz Connor Strahm.
“He’s fearless,” Montana defensive coordinator Jason Semore said. “He is going to pull the trigger. He’s a physical kid. He’s an aggressive kid. He’s a very competitive kid. He definitely loves football. And he certainly loves to hit.”
Strong first learned his could endure, absorb and survive through contact during those front yard battles growing up in Rialto, California. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder may not be huge now, but he grew early on. Because of his early spurt, Strong played defensive end during his Pop Warner youth football days.
In junior high, Strong moved to inside linebacker, where he learned how to take on offensive linemen and fullbacks without fear. As a sophomore and junior in high school, Strong served as a team captain and standout linebacker at Summit High School. He earned first-team All-Sunkist league honors as a junior linebacker by notching 105 tackles, five sacks and five interceptions.
Through 7-on-7, individual workouts and plenty of extra time, Strong quickly developed into an elite safety prospect. His senior year, he earned a designation by Scout.com as the No. 56 safety in the country. He earned first-team All-CIF honors his senior year after making 49 tackles, six tackles for loss and snaring four interceptions in leading Summit to a CIF Southern Section title.
He fielded offers from Nevada, Wyoming, San Diego State and Oregon State, choosing the Pac 12 school to play for Mike Riley. Strong redshirted in 2013 before breaking into the lineup in 2014. He notched 56 tackles, five tackles for loss and a sack playing primary as Oregon State’s “nickel safety.”
As a sophomore, Strong started for eight games before an injury ended his season. He finished fourth on the team with 54 tackles. Before the 2015 season however, Riley left for the head job at Nebraska. Despite his starting role, Strong looked for other options.
Strong’s younger brother, Marcus, was a freshman at Washington State when Justin started exploring. Justin reached out to Wazzu head coach Mike Leach, who in turn directed Strong to Montana head coach Bob Stitt.
“The new coaches at Oregon State, we weren’t seeing eye to eye so I figured I’d use my two years,” Strong said. “I tried at Washington State with my little brother. Coach Leach, he put me and my mother in contact with Coach Stitt. I called Coach Stitt and he did his thing, talked to me for 30, 45 minutes trying to get to know me. After I did that, Coach Stitt, Coach Semore, explained this would be the best place for me.”
Schillinger praises Strong for his ability to pick up schematic details quickly and communicate defensive calls to his teammates on the fly. From his athleticism and explosiveness to his physicality to his football IQ, Schillinger, himself a former NFL safety, thinks Strong will at least get a look to play on Sundays.
“He’s a guy who our guys look to as the physical player,” Schillinger said. “He’s a guy who our players look up to. He was voted the hardest hitter last year for good reason. He is very talented.”
He’s also been the type of transfer that Stitt said he wants to recruit, someone that fits into the team dynamic smoothly.
“He’s been fantastic,” Stitt said on Wednesday. “He’s come in as a transfer and fit in very quickly. He’s a guy who’s a selfless player. He’s going to go out and get his job done every single day. He’s been a great leader for our guys on the back end.
“We have a lot of young guys who are in the secondary this year and he’s been a mentor to those young guys. He really leads by example. He walks the walk.”
During Montana’s 48-41 home loss to Eastern Washington last week, Strong had a number of hard hits, including one that produced a thud that resonated throughout sold-out Washington-Grizzly Stadium. He hit the EWU receiver so hard on the sideline, the Eagle pass catcher could do nothing but pop up and flip the ball in denial of the pain, which drew a personal foul flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I remember that exact play. That right there gets everybody juiced,” Montana senior cornerback Ryan McKinley said on Wednesday. “To have safety that comes up and hits like that is big for the defense.”
Smacking ball carriers gets Strong’s juices flowing too.
“When I do something like that, that’s me on the next planet,” Strong said. “That’s me showing my domination over another man. Whenever I can do that, I know everybody else see it, too.
“Like I tell my brother, it’s either you or him and you always want to be the man. When I’m about to make a play and I look a man in the eye, I can see his eyes every time and I know he wants to win this rep as much as me so at the end of the day, I want to win every single time.”
Strong is closing in on a degree in sociology. He keeps no secret about his dream of following in Butler’s footsteps and playing in the NFL. Because of that, he picks Schillinger’s brain consistently when it comes to the details of being a professional. He tries to study film often, carry himself confidently and run to the ball whenever he can.
While the hitting display he’s put on during his short time in Montana is what most will remember about Strong, what he will take from his two-year experience in Missoula has been more personally influential.
“Coming to Montana, it taught me to be a better team player,” Strong said. “I’ve always been thinking about making a play. Here, I can just do my job and I now my other defensive backs will make plays for me, my linebackers will make plays for me. It’s a lot more comfortable out here playing the game I like to play and watching everybody else play just as aggressive as me.
“I have no regrets at all. I love it here.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.