MISSOULA — When Shann Schillinger suited up for Montana during his football playing days, he posed for dozens of pictures with fans and signed countless autographs.

One of those autographs was for a grade school kid from Bigfork named Josh Sandry. 

Around 10 years later, Schillinger has returned to his alma mater to coach safeties and that grade school kid from the 2000s is one of his stars. 

"It is a little weird, but it's awesome at the same time," Sandry said of having his childhood idol as his coach. "I idolized (Schillinger and Colt Anderson) growing up and to finally get to play under one of them and learn from one of the greatest to come out of Montana is pretty awesome."

Sandry and Schillinger have near-mirrored backgrounds. 

Schillinger, the pride of Baker, played quarterback and safety in high school before playing safety at Montana. Sandry, the pride of Bigfork, played quarterback and safety in high school before playing safety at Montana. 

Both Baker and Bigfork are Class B schools as well. 

"We talk about it a lot," Sandry said of their similarities. "He gives me grief because Baker beat us in the playoffs (in 2013) and he's like, 'Oh you're 0-1 against Baker.' But it's pretty cool we come from the same path."

Through five games this season, Sandry has 24 tackles with three passes defended, a pass breakup, a blocked field goal, a quarterback hurry and two interceptions.

One of those interceptions was a pick-6 off of then-No. 7 Washington's quarterback Jake Browning, who hasn't given up another pick-6 since. 

"It was obviously an exciting moment," Schillinger said. "Any time you get a pick-6, obviously he had help from a corner on a tipped ball, but he, we forget that Josh is still a young football player and to get one of those in really your second career start is pretty special. I told him it's the first of many. Hopefully we can get a few more, but I'm really proud of him. That was a big-time play." 

In addition to battling for interceptions, Sandry's been battling a tweaked ankle. It's nothing serious, defensive coordinator Jason Semore said, but it's enough to be annoying. 

"He goes in and out of the game two or three times a game," Semore said. "He's a tough kid. It's not something that he can't play with. He's gonna compete through it and as long as he can do that physically, we have to have him on the field because he's that type of player. I know for him it's frustrating at times, but he's gonna keep battling and give us everything he's got."

Schillinger echoed Semore, saying Sandry's work ethic has been visible during the period of minor adversity. 

"He's a tough kid that was raised the right way, loves the game of football," Schillinger said. "You can tell who likes football. They'll fight through injuries and give it all they got for their teammates, and Josh is one of those guys. This game means a lot to him, this program means a lot to him and he's gonna come out and give it everything he has.

"Every day he puts on a uniform, he's gonna give you everything he has. That's all you can ask for as a coach."

The sophomore is close to hitting his tackle count from last season. No. 13 played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman and had 30 tackles with 2 1/2 tackles for loss. 

Since his redshirt freshman season, Semore said Sandry's leadership role on the team has vastly developed.

"He's always had ability but now he's a guy in the locker room that's vocal," Semore said. "He's a dude that's taken ownership in the defensive secondary. ... He's a guy that demands things out of other people and communicates and stuff like that, where last year Josh struggled with that.

"He was kind of out there trying to find his own way to what his responsibilities (were) and now he knows everything. It's been able to make him more productive as a football player."

Even though Sandry has become a catalyst for Montana's defense, he isn't focusing on himself. Selfishness isn't Sandry's style. 

"I've never really been a guy that just focuses on me and individual stats," Sandry said. "As long as the team is winning, I'm happy."

That attitude — and love of all things Griz — is what got him to Missoula in the first place.

He's hoping that if others, especially those from smaller communities, see what he's accomplished, then maybe, they'll get that spark to dream big, too. 

"It means a lot," Sandry said of being a Griz after playing at a Class B school. "I take pride in it. I grew up coming to Griz games and I've always wanted to be a part of (this) program. I think people overlook Class B football a lot and there's some really good players out there that, me playing here maybe could give kids in Class B some hope.

"It doesn't matter where you're at. If you're good, you're good. You're gonna get looked at and you're gonna get your opportunity."

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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