Asked what’s different about the defense being introduced this spring, the consensus among University of Toledo players and coaches is unnerving at first blush.
“Really no difference,” safety Chaz Whittaker said.
The Rockets ranked 88th in the country under the old way.
“Pretty much similar to last year,” cornerback Cheatham Norrils said, echoing his teammate.
No change? From a unit that Buffalo gashed for 41 second-half points?
Shed some light, Allen Covington.
“Little new stuff here and there, but it’s the same for the most part,” the junior lineman added.
In the absence of sweeping alterations is a familiar approach the Rockets hope delivers a fresh outcome. New coordinator Jon Heacock is marrying the principles established by his predecessor, Tom Matukewicz, “with a little bit of our ideas.” The Rockets will still use four down linemen, and they will still substitute into packages featuring hybrid linebackers and backs.
Terminology is the biggest difference, as are expectations for a unit growing older and moving closer to coach Matt Campbell’s goal of fielding two starting-caliber players at each position.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Heacock, whose career took flight in 1983 as a Toledo graduate assistant. “What we do isn’t gonna be what makes a difference. How we do what we do is the difference.”
Someone make a T-shirt.
Heacock, who last year served as Purdue’s secondary coach, is “about business,” Covington said. He is “intense,” Norrils said.
He’s also reluctant to heap praise. One week into spring practice, Heacock on Thursday wouldn’t single out individuals catching his attention, mentioning only he’s learned through the years “to have great empathy and respect” for seniors adapting to his way of thinking.
Asked of areas Toledo must shore up after eight seasons of subpar defense, Heacock said, “You can start from A to Z. I’m a pretty hard guy to please.”
Since 2006, the Rockets on average ranked 83rd nationally in total defense.
Determining whether he commands an attacking or a passive defense swings on the type of players he has. To that end, Heacock said, “I’m not sure we know exactly what we have.”
He likely will be without 300-pound lineman Elijah Jones, who missed all of last season with a blood clot. Jones, who started most of 2012, will undergo testing in the coming weeks, “but right now it’s looking like he’ll be medically disqualified,” Campbell said.
Competition exists everywhere, as does experience. A talented 2013 recruiting class enters Year 2, giving reinforcement to a struggling secondary as well as a line hindered in recent years by late-season injuries.
Only two projected starters — sophomores Treyvon Hester and Jordan Martin — are not in at least their third year with the program.
Campbell raved about Martin, calling the 6-foot-2 corner an “impressive force.” Safeties Whittaker and Jordan Haden have been devouring film, he said.
There’s a lot to like about the linebackers. Starters Trent Voss, Chase Murdock, and Junior Sylvestre return ahead of back ups Jaylen Coleman and Zach Quinn who recovered from 2013 injuries.
Is the talent he inherits up to making a radical transformation? Heacock is still learning. But their will to be excellent, he says, is apparent.
“I don’t get all caught up in that stuff,” he said. “I think there’s guys here that care about wanting to be great. That’s what it really takes.”