March 29, 2018
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
There’s nothing more fun for players on the defensive side of the ball than being encouraged to play aggressively.
That’s exactly how the system of new defensive coordinator Nate Woody has been advertised. It’s rare that it has not been referred to as a `3-4, attack-first defense.’
Not surprisingly, following the first two practices of the spring earlier this week, defensive student-athletes had nothing but positive things to say about the scheme and those who are installing it — Woody and his defensive staff, including new assistant coaches Jerome Riase (defensive line) and Shiel Wood (safeties). The least-surprised was head coach Paul Johnson.
“I think anytime there’s anything new, that players get excited,” said Johnson. “(Woody) has a system that he believes in. He’s had a lot of success with it and he wants to make sure that it’s done the right way and taught the right way and the guys play hard.”
Shouldn’t be a problem.
That new-car smell has been intoxicating for the players, even if their only exposure to the system has been through watching film, holding meetings and getting the basics while running around in helmets and shorts.
They’re passionate about learning every facet of the defense and are ready to attack.
“The guys love it. There’s a lot of energy surrounding the defense right now. It’s positive energy,” said senior linebacker and 2018 co-captain Brant Mitchell. “The guys are picking it up, we’re getting better every single day and that’s what we’re here to do — be the best that we can.
“This energy that we’re bringing is great for us,” he added. “It comes with the defense being more aggressive and a lot faster. We have some guys coming down from the secondary to come to outside linebacker. I think it’s been a good adjustment for them and it fits better for our personnel.”
Mitchell especially liked the idea of doubling the number of linebackers on the field per play over recent years, when the Jackets often played a 4-2-5, but defensive lineman Anree Saint-Amour is hardly discouraged by the prospect of losing one of his compatriots up front. He likes what he’s seen thus far from the new defense — everything from the mentality to the opportunity to move a little closer to the ball before the snap.
“It’s different but we’re learning fast,” said Saint-Amour. “We like the new coaches. They’re up-tempo and they’re pushing us the right way. So it’s a good thing.”
The secondary has a new look, as senior safety A.J. Gray is the only returning starter. He’s sitting out the spring but his fellow DBs seem to share the same positive outlook on the defense.
“Everything’s different but I like it a lot,” said senior cornerback Lamont Simmons. “A lot of guys are switching to different positions that they probably never played before — maybe a defensive end is going inside — we have a nose tackle now. Just little things like that.”
Simmons believes the aggressive nature of the front seven will help a secondary that is long physically but short on experience.
“I feel like it’s going to help out a lot,” he said. “As long as our defensive line is putting up pressure, it’s going to help us in the back end. So as long as we have great defensive linemen, the whole secondary is going to be great, the linebackers are going to be great.”
Saint-Amour, Mitchell and Simmons — all in their final seasons — have embraced starting at the beginning defensively this season. It’s especially true on the D-line, where Riase takes over.
“It’s definitely a weird thing, having a whole new defense your senior year,” said Saint-Amour. “Usually the seniors would know everything and everything’s kind of chill with them but everybody’s on the same plain right now and just learning together.
“(Riase has) been good,” he added. “It’s definitely a change, two different personalities, different people. We’re learning more about him every day, respecting him more, learning his ways and how to practice under him.”
Simmons has the respect of the young guys in the secondary and is drawing on the experiences from his predecessors.
“I use different things that I’ve learned from D.J. [White] and Chris Milton from when I first got here, [as well as 2017 seniors] Step [Durham] and Lance [Austin], asking them questions and seeing how they did things,” said Simmons, who also admitted that he’s glad to have the familiar voice of cornerbacks coach Joe Speed around (the safeties will learn from new coach Shiel Wood). “D.J. was different from Chris, so I’m taking the things that they did differently and trying to put them together so I can help out the younger guys.
“I’m not as vocal so when I do get vocal, I feel like the guys do listen,” he added. “I more try to lead by example but when I do see something like as far as foot placement and when we’re doing different drills, I’ll pull a guy to the side and say, `You can do this to help you break out of your back-pedal faster.’ Little things like that.”
Mitchell took in a lot of film during the off-season with his “new” inside linebackers coach Andy McCollum (McCollum coached also coached Mitchell and the linebackers in 2015), something he feels will be advantageous to the linebacking corps. He believes the film sessions have helped him get a jump on the spring adjustments.
“I have spent quite a bit of time in the film room just looking at App State and how they ran it and how they were successful doing it and learning the new terminology, of course,” he said. “It’s everything that goes with learning a new defense. Any time there’s a change, it’s going to be different from what you’ve learned. It’s about breaking habits that may have been a problem in the old defense and learning new ones and adjusting. So that’s what it’s about — adapting and overcoming.”
There has been a lot of both in the early days of spring ball, which have been a tutorial of Woody’s responsibilities for the linebacking position — a very thorough one.
“One of the things the coaches have told us is they’re going through a process of looking at the personnel and seeing who’s going to fit best at which position,” Mitchell said. “[At inside linebacker], there’s a ‘MIKE’ and ‘WILL.’ They have similarities, obviously, but every position is a little bit different. There’s a different perspective of the game from each position. With those two positions, in particular, there are guys switching back and forth. We’re basically trying to learn the whole defense and learn each other’s positions.”
The Jackets will practice in shells on Friday then show what they’ve learned thus far in the first intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday.
“We have a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys,” said Saint-Amour. “The pressure’s on to learn the defense fast and to play fast.”
The defensive players aren’t the only ones looking forward to Saturday.
“I’m actually really excited to go to full pads and actually see how they’re going to move around because it is a new defense and a new look,” said quarterback TaQuon Marshall. “I’m really excited about that.”
Simmons is also excited about what lies ahead.
“I feel like the senior class is gelling together and we also have the young guys gelling together with us,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a great season.”