Football's Defensive Front: Designed For Domination
Oct. 20, 1998
BY DAN HEUCHERT
reprinted with permission from Cavalier Corner
On their first offensive play of the 1998 season, the Auburn Tigers determined to establish a ground game to take the heat oheir first offensive play of the 1998 season, the Auburn Tigers determined to establish a ground game to take the heat oHff first-year starter Ben Leard at quarterback ran a simple toss sweep to the left side. Tailback Demontray Carter gained seven yards before Virginia cornerback Antwan Harris ran him out of bounds.
That proved to be the Tigers’ most productive running play of the game.
None of their next 22 rushing attempts gained more than six yards. Fifteen of them, in fact, netted one yard or less. And that doesn’t include the two sacks the Cavs rang up against Leard. Figure those in, as the NCAA does, and Auburn totalled just 18 yards rushing in 27 attempts on average, just 24 inches per attempt.
That, from a defending division champion team from the vaunted Southeastern Conference, playing in front of nearly 80,000 passionate fans in its home stadium.
“Our defensive front seven played a heck of a game,” said All-American safety Anthony Poindexter, who had perhaps the best view of the impressive performance from his position in the defensive backfield.
The stat sheet showed that starting linebackers Byron Thweatt, Wali Rainer and Donny Green led the team in tackles, along with Poindexter. That’s not unusual the linebackers have long been the glory boys in the Cavalier defensive scheme, and Poindexter is, well, Poindexter.
Truth be told, though, the guys who led the charge were the men up front: the defensive line, whose ranks included two players making their collegiate debuts, a guy who started his UVa career on a lacrosse scholarship, another whose positional coach calls him an “occupational hazard,” and another whose best-known claim to Cavalier athletic fame at least for a few years was as the victim of a slashing.
Hey, defensive linemen live in a violent world.
A little football primer.
In the olden days, when kids lined up their little plastic players for electric football, the “coach” of the defensive team placed one of his linemen directly in front of each offensive lineman. It just seemed symmetrical.
Many real-life defenses were doing the same thing at the time. The defensive player lined up head-on over his offensive counterpart; as the ball was snapped, he tried to discern in which direction the play was headed as he engaged the blocker in front of him, and then attempted to get there first. In football parlance, that was called “two-gap” responsibility each lineman was responsible for plays that went through the holes on either side of the offensive lineman in front of him.
Jump ahead now to the Sega age. The offensive linemen break the huddle and hitch up their pants while trotting up to take their places on the line. Across the way, their defensive counterparts stand and wait for the blockers to take their positions, then position themselves where the offensive guys aren’t. If those defensive linemen are wearing Cavalier orange and blue, they might even move around a little more while the quarterback barks out the signals, seeking to create some confusion.
At the snap, the defensive linemen have one thought: Get upfield. And the fastest way to do that is to pick a side and get around the blocker, not take him on head-to-head.
“What we want em to do is to attack the offense, disrupt the blocking scheme and destroy the timing of the offense,” said assistant coach Ty Smith. “If we do those things, somebody on the team is going to make a play before the ball gets across the line of scrimmage.”
That’s the basic concept of the Cavalier defense. There are many variations on the theme occasionally, a defensive lineman may drop back into pass coverage, allowing a linebacker or defensive back to launch a surprise attack on the passer; other times, the linemen may plot amongst themselves to throw in a “twist,” in which a defensive tackle may push a blocker to the outside while a defensive end loops around to the inside, or vice versa.
The scheme has served Virginia well. Since Rick Lantz took over as defensive coordinator in 1991, the Cavs have been perennially among the nation’s leaders in stopping the run, leading the nation in that category in 1994. (They finished 21st in 1997, allowing 114 yards per game.)
It may come as a surprise to some that there are two coaches assigned to the defensive line. Smith, a veteran coach in his first year at Virginia, handles the defensive ends, while David Turner, in his second year, takes the tackles.
The job descriptions of the two positions are slightly different. Defensive ends are generally slightly lighter and more mobile, with more pass rush responsibility; while the tackles push the QB’s protective pocket backward, the ends attempt to cave it in from the sides.
“Sometimes you think [sacks] are an individual play, but usually they’re not,” Smith said. “The quarterback doesn’t often let the first guy hit him. Sacks usually result from one or two players doing a good job, making the quarterback move in the pocket.”
Defensive tackles are generally heavier, mostly for survival as they take on 300-pound, drive-blocking offensive linemen against the run. They do the defense’s dirty work, often occupying two or more blockers while the ends and linebackers clean up the ballcarrier.
While there are distinctions between the positions, “it’s real important that we function as a defensive line,” Smith said. “The right end and the right tackle have to be more of a team than the two defensive ends.”
Smith’s late addition to the staff, after long-time George Welsh aide Bob Petchel resigned just before the preseason, has fostered improved communication between the tackles and ends, said senior defensive end Patrick Kerney.
“It helps us play more as a unit. Last year, we kind of did our own thing,” he said.
Turner, the tackles coach, has welcomed input from Smith, a defensive assistant for 20 years.
“Ty has helped me an awful lot. He’s coached the defensive front for a long time,” said Turner, himself in his 13th season as an assistant, although just his fifth on the defensive line. “He’s probably helped me more than he realizes. I know a whole lot more about the defense this year than I did last year.”
With one notable exception, the players Smith and Turner work with are generally not household names.
The exception is fourth-year Antonio Dingle, listed as a preseason third-team or honorable mention All-American by six different publications and rated among the top five defensive tackles in the country by two others. At 6-3 and 302 pounds, and in possession of one of the most colorful personalities on the team, Dingle stands out in any crowd.
His play on the field is often attention-getting, too. He came into the season with 125 career tackles and seven sacks, and played in his 37th straight game against Auburn.
He has been known to be a bit headstrong, which has occasionally led to some friction with the coaching staff (and Turner’s “occupational hazard” remark). Most recently, Dingle took a suggested “leave of absence” during spring practice. A minor preseason injury apparently unrelated to having his tongue pierced limited him to 26 plays against Auburn, and he made just one tackle.
The outspoken Dingle is a favorite with UVa football beat writers, which may add to the anonymity of the rest of his linemates. The only other Virginia defensive linemen to earn preseason mention was Kerney and he was listed as one of the nation’s “most underexposed” players by The Sporting News after racking up eight sacks in 97.
Still, that’s not bad for a guy who arrived at the University with designs on winning a national championship in lacrosse. Virginia’s football coaches weren’t sure what to make of the youngster out of The Taft School, a small private school in Connecticut that didn’t play very strong football competition, but they invited him to try out.
He progressed so much that he gave up lacrosse after two seasons to focus full-time on preparing himself for a shot at the NFL.
“It was a weight issue,” Kerney said. Anything above 225 pounds or so took away from his lacrosse mobility, while anything below 250 was hazardous to his heath as a football player. He now weighs in at an agile 265.
Kerney and third-year end Patrick Griffith are in their second year as starters, while the rest of the line rotation is generally young and relatively untested. The Cavs played 10 different players along the defensive front against Auburn, an unusually large number in a close game, with little ego bruising in the process.
For a young player, “any playing time they get is good,” Poindexter noted. “They’re just happy to play.”
Second-year Kofi Bawuah earned his first start at tackle against Auburn, rotating with Dingle, third-year Maurice Anderson and redshirt first-year Monsanto Pope.
At 23 years old and with 21 appearances under his belt all as a backup Anderson is the most veteran among the unsungs, but is still better known in some circles as the victim of a razor slash at the hands of one-time basketball recruit Melvin Whitaker. These days, he’s no one’s victim; he’s stout against the run, and has the speed to chase quarterbacks.
The end rotation included six players against the Tigers, which Smith said was more a function of none of the non-starters distinguishing themselves in the preseason than some sort of egalitarian ideal. That could change; redshirt first-year Ljubomir Stamenich, though short on experience, was one of the Cavs’ most productive players in the spring, and came up with three tackles for losses including two sacks in just 12 plays against Auburn. His hit forced Tiger QB Ben Leard to cough up a fumble, which Pope recovered.
The other contenders included third-year Andreas Karelis, a converted linebacker; third-year Dillon Taylor, who doubles as the long-snapper for field goals and punts; and redshirt first-year Darryl Sanders.
If the line continues to play as it did against Auburn, its denizens may lose their no-name status. A few days after the shutout in Alabama, Griffith declared a team goal of not allowing any points through the first bye week, which comes five games into the season. (The remaining opponents: Maryland, Clemson, Duke and San Jose State.)
The Cavs haven’t shut out as many as four opponents in a season since 1952, and the last time they blanked five straight came in 1910, when they had the advantage of not having to defend against the forward pass. (That streak, incidentally, ended with a 22-5 loss to Carlisle Indian School, whose ranks included the legendary Jim Thorpe.)
Five shutouts may be a bit much to hope for, but the victory over Auburn has the players sensing this could be a special season nonetheless.
“Personally, I think that overall, the defensive line could be the best we’ve had,” Griffith said.
“It could rank right up there,” said Poindexter, who admits he wouldn’t be unhappy to have to make fewer hits on running backs this season.
“We have a lot of depth. And everybody knows where they fit in.”