Slowly but surely, Georgia Southern’s defense is making the kind of progress the Eagles have been searching for all along.
After a slow start this spring, the unit has improved steadily the last few practices and put an exclamation point on the Eagle’s third week of spring drills by dominating Friday morning’s scrimmage.
The performance was so good senior Chris Covington considered it one of the best defensive practices he’s been a part of since he moved to safety prior to last spring.
“I think everybody is starting to get comfortable with the game plan,” said Covington, last year’s leading tackler.
“Things are coming quick and we are flying around like we want to. That’s the whole way this defense has to work — you’ve got to run around and make plays.”
Defensive coordinator Ashley Anders continues to stress the importance of creating turnovers, and the unit racked up a handful of takeaways Friday including interceptions by Harland Bower, Kemuel Spivey and Darrel Pasco and a fumble recovery by David Morris. Last year the Eagles led the Southern Conference with a plus-12 turnover margin.
“I expect nothing but that every year,” Anders said.
Anders was pleased with the defense’s pressure Friday and its ability to stick to its assignments, particularly on blitzes. He also praised the secondary for covering well during blitzes and forcing the quarterbacks to hold the ball longer.
“Those go hand in hand — if you’re not doing a good job covering, the blitz isn’t going to get there because the ball will be gone,” he said. “When you look at the whole day, we got better in a lot of areas that we haven’t been very successful in up until this point.”
The rebuilding offense only found the end zone a few times Friday, a stark contract to the first spring scrimmage when it scored on 17 of 24 series. Junior Ricky Ponton ran for a long touchdown, and quarterback Lee Chapple and running back Craig Norman both scored on short scampers.
“In one sense, I’m very excited because you better play good defense to win, however in the other sense, I’m upset that we didn’t perform as well as we needed to offensively,” GSU coach Chris Hatcher said. “Then offensively, there are just a lot of little fundamentals we’ve got to work on. We’ve got a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball, but I think we are headed in the right direction.”
Though the offense is replacing its entire starting line and backfield, it’s been ahead of the defense most of the spring. Coaches have gradually installed more of the defense as the spring has gone on, plus the unit is becoming more familiar with the offense’s plays. Hatcher said the offense is also experiencing a “wear-down factor” with its younger players, who aren’t accustomed to playing so hard for so long.
Hatcher expects the offense to have ups and downs with all its new players, and the defense has been successful with rushing quarterbacks Kyle Collins and Chapple.
“We weren’t getting the ball out as quick as we have been, and a lot of that you have to give credit to the secondary and the linebackers,” Hatcher said. “They were doing a good job of covering. The yards get tougher as spring goes on.”
Anders attributes the defense’s gigantic step forward to its improved mentality, and Covington thinks it’s all about intensity.
“We’ve been banging around pretty hard trying to create that play-tough attitude and mentality,” Anders said. “I think the kids are buying into it. We keep telling them that anytime they play tough and hard, you give yourself a chance. We always reiterate that as long as they come out here and get an inch better every day, that’s all you can ask for.”
Said Covington: “You’ve got to have an attitude to play defense, and I think people are starting to realize that.”
With one week of spring drills remaining, Covington said the defense must work on its consistency.
“We’ve got to come out here everyday and play like we did today, keep the intensity up, focus on our jobs and not have a slack-off day,” he said.
Spivey stepping up
Spivey’s been a pleasant surprise since switching from wide receiver to cornerback earlier this week. With Brandon Jackson leaving school and Carson Hill still recovering from an injury last season, the Eagles need all the help they can get at corner. Spivey made the move Tuesday, and has recorded three interceptions in just two practices on defense where he’s already working out with the first team.
“He’s got some real natural talents,” Covington said. “He’s got to pick up the scheme and techniques of corner, but naturally he’s fitting in real well. It’s his second day here and he’s making picks and fumble recoveries. He’s doing a real good job.”
Spivey, a former cornerback at Hawkinsville High School, walked on last fall and redshirted last season.
“He’s got to learn on the fly right now, but ability-wise he’s got DB skills and that’s something we need,” Anders said.
After spring drills Hatcher and Anders will decide if Spivey’s move is permanent.
“I love offense, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to make my team better,” Spivey said. “I just want to help. The intensity out there is what’s hyping us up. And when we get hyped — that’s when the defense plays good. But when we’re playing low and quiet, that’s when the offense wins.”
Bower, a linebacker, is also having a solid spring for the Eagles. After the scrimmage, he was tackled by his defensive teammates, who dogpiled on top of the junior in celebration of his 20th birthday.