Fundamentals key for Panthers on defense


Sean Hastings

Redshirt sophomore defensive back Taylor Jefferies lays a hit on redshirt freshman tight end Jonathan McCoy in the Panthers’ spring practice Wednesday night at O’Brien Field. Eastern is trying to perfect its defense in the second year running the scheme.

JJ Bullock, Assistant Sports Editor


Last season the Eastern football team and new defensive coordinator Cary Fowler instilled an entirely new defensive scheme and one that, all things considered, kept the Panthers in most of its games last season.

In regulation of games, Eastern never scored more than 21 points on offense, so a lot of the team’s success was dependent on the defense holding the opposing team in key situations.

Now in year two of perfecting the new defense, Fowler hopes to see the defense get fundamentally better and take another leap forward in his goal to having the number one defense in the country.

The Panthers are running a new, faster-paced offense this season in spring football, one that Fowler has seen in both Texas and at Murray State. But with that new offense, Fowler said that the team is running a lot of the same plays, so both the offense and the defense need to learn to “succumb to boredom” and improve fundamentally.

“Year two of our system defensively, which was a complete change one-year ago, so we’re making that change with what we’re doing defensively right now,” Fowler said. “But year two our guys are getting so much better and our guys are running the same plays, and if we can fundamentally be better football players, we will see major improvements next year.”

Outside of improving fundamentally, forcing more turnovers is something else that Fowler wants his team to be thinking about during spring football.

“Being able to get hits on the quarterback and being turnover conscious. That’s an emphasis that I have got to put in everyday with them,” Fowler said. “We have got to put our offense in short field positions, especially with what we’re doing offensively now, so we can score a lot more points than what it would if we were backing them up, and we have got to become so much better turnover conscious.”

Redshirt players like Marcus Bornslater, who was moved to a hybrid position Eastern calls “star,” are among a group of guys, particularly freshmen, who have caught Fowler’s eye this spring.

“The whole freshmen class, I have been really impressed with what they’re doing,” Fowler said. “Guys like Sean Williams at linebacker, he was hurt most of last year, he is a guy that I think has been playing as good as anybody we have defensively right now.”

“Up front, Austin Johnson moved from linebacker to defensive end, you have got speed with him and then Alex Smith at the opposite end, who hasn’t played very much here, but with what we’re doing here right now, the speed that they have on the pass rush, those guys have really jumped out at me,” Fowler added.

The pass rush is something that head coach Kim Dameron said the team was looking to improve on at signing day in February, and so far in spring football, Dameron said there has been an increase in the aggressiveness of the defensive line.

“We’re a little bit more attack-read than we used to be, we used to be a little bit more read-attack. Which really works well for the run game, but sometimes hurts you in the passing game and so we are trying to be a little more aggressive up front,” Dameron said.

Dameron said defensive end Alex Smith might be the most improved player. He added that the linebackers remain relatively the same as last season, with redshirt sophomore Sean Williams finally being healthy, and that having guys like redshirt sophomore Ray Crittenden in the defensive back crew has been good this season.

Something about the defensive backs that was emphasized at signing day was the speed of them. A part of that group in the backfield is redshirt-senior DyShaun Smith who said the goal in spring ball is to get everyone on the same page, play fast and keep it simple.

“Just compete and compete at a high level. And that is what we expect out of everybody,” Smith said. “We expect a lot of young guys to step up and expect a lot of leadership to come out of the senior group, like myself, Taylon Shephard (defensive tackle), Josh Price (defensive line), what he expects on the field. Leadership, effort and high competition is what’s going to get us to that level we need to be at.”

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]