September 19, 2008

D-Line Looks to Reassert Run ‘D’

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It’s difficult to tell from the statistics exactly what plagued the Red defense in 2007, but there’s no question that something was not clicking. One week it gave up four rushing touchdowns and 277 rushing yards but only 96 receiving yards and one touchdown pass. The next week, the squad allowed just 71 rushing yards but saw the opposing quarterback throw for 339 yards and four touchdowns.
It wasn’t simply an inferior squad, according to associate defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Pete DeStefano. After all, the 2005 Red defensive line allowed an average of 88.3 yards per game on the ground, good for second among Football Championship Series teams. Nor was it a problem of fitness, technique, play calling or motivation. Instead, the prevailing view among the Red staff is that the defense — particularly the defensive line — was hurt by a lack of depth.
“We didn’t have any replacements,” DeStefano said. “We had four [linemen] basically, so they got worn down a little bit.”
Then-junior linemen Dario Arezzo, Lucas McCarthy and Frank Kunis played about 95 percent of the snaps last season, DeStefano said. This year, four capable backups — seniors Ryne Posey and Jeff Rosage and juniors Trevin Cowman and Ricky Ballou — will spell the top-3. The Arezzo-McCarthy-Kunis line should only get about 60 percent of the snaps this season according to DeStefano’s plans.
“I feel that I have seven guys right now, for basically three spots, that I don’t have any problems with putting in the game,” DeStefano said. “There’s going to be a constant rotation going on.”
The rigor of competing on almost every play took its toll on the starters and affected their endurance and focus.
“It definitely affected us as the season wore on,” Arezzo said. “We only had four guys playing in 10 games. It was pretty rough. This year, we have backups at every position that are good enough.”
Posey and Cowman both saw time on the line last season. Rosage is a fifth-year senior and converted tight end who injured his Achilles tendon and missed all of 2007. At 6-2 and 290 pounds, Rosage is an imposing presence on the line and can fill in for any of the three starters. The other newcomer to the mix, Ballou, had an outstanding preseason and has drawn praise from DeStefano thus far.
“Ricky Ballou is very similar to Arezzo, but a bigger Arezzo,” he said. “He’s a good pass rusher, runs around, plays the run very well. He might be the most complete package that we have, to be honest.”
In addition to the depth, the team spent the offseason focusing on conditioning and strength training — developing toughness, as head coach Jim Knowles ’87 called it.
That toughness is the product of a mixture of attitude and accountability, according to Knowles.
“The defensive line and linebackers have to be able to not get pushed around,” Knowles said. “…We’ve got to do better than last year.”
Last year was indeed a rough year for the Red defensive unit. The defense gave up an average of 364 yards per game. Opposing quarterbacks piled up a 125.94 efficiency rating. A big part of the unimpressive defensive stats was the Red’s struggles away from Schoellkopf — the defense allowed about 60 more yards per game when playing at an opponent’s home field.
“When we play at Schoellkopf, we play with so much more energy,” DeStefano said.
But with Arezzo, McCarthy and Kunis manning the front line of the Red’s defense, DeStefano expects his squad to do a better job of stifling opposing offenses, whether home or away.
“We’ve got a much older team now,” he said. “I expect us to be mature enough now to play with as much emotion on the road as at home. That’s a lot of it, in this game, is emotion and enthusiasm and confidence. I expect them to carry that with them for the next 10 weeks.”