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Rockets using chip to shoulder defense

09/06/2016, 12:19am EDT
By By BRIAN BUCKEY BLADE SPORTS WRITER

'Proud unit' dominant during UT opener


The Toledo defense limited Arkansas State in each team's opening game Friday night. BLADE PHOTO

Members of the University of Toledo football team’s defense heard the noise all offseason.

They have to replace too many starters from last season. They are too young. They lack game experience. And, for the most part, all of the critiques are true.

The defense is young at some positions, and they graduated key contributors. But if Friday night’s 31-10 win over Arkansas State is any indication, they are also a fast, physical, and confident group, and they are playing with an edge.

“The defense is a proud unit,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “That’s a part of our team that probably has a bit of a chip on their shoulder. They have heard about how good our defense was last season and how many great seniors graduated from that and really collectively have taken it upon themselves to play spirited throughout fall camp and practice.

“I think it’s a very well-coached unit too. Coach [Brian] George has done a good job preparing those guys and getting those guys ready to go.”

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The Rockets lost all-Mid-American Conference defensive ends Allen Covington and Trent Voss, defensive tackle Orion Jones, and cornerback Cheatham Norrils.

But this season’s defense still has veteran leadership in team captains John Stepec (defensive end), DeJuan Rogers (safety), and Treyvon Hester (defensive tackle).

“It’s a young defense from an experience standpoint and games started, but I believe that there’s been a group of guys there, a lot of veteran guys here, that have played a lot of football for us and done good things,” Candle said.

Against Arkansas State, the defense held the Red Wolves to 80 yards of total offense in the first half and 266 yards for the game. The only Arkansas State touchdown came in the fourth quarter.

“I think we came out and everyone was talking about how many players we lost last year and all this, and I don’t think they realized what players we are getting back this year,” Stepec said. “The young guys were ready to play and we just played with a chip on our shoulder and played fast and communicated out there and played really well.”

Last year, UT led the MAC in scoring defense — 20.8 points per game — and was fourth in total defense, allowing 374.8 yards per game.

“There are some guys that have played football last year that are still here, but you have to pay respect to those guys with the year we had last year with a great group of seniors,” senior safety Connery Swift said. “I think we have a lot of people stepping up this year to fill in those shoes, and I think we will be able to fill in those shoes.”

George, the new defensive coordinator, spent the previous three seasons as coordinator at Kent State. George has the UT defense paying attention to detail and competing at a high level.

Against Arkansas State, the defense had four sacks and created consistent pressure on the quarterback. They also held the Red Wolves to just 13 first downs and a 3-for-16 mark in converting third downs.

“I think the defensive line did great,” Stepec said. “The secondary helped us out a lot covering up their guys and gave us time to get back there and make some plays.”

The secondary limited Arkansas State to 11-of-25 passing for only 124 yards. The defensive backs were rarely tested on deep balls down the field.

“We didn’t get too many deep threats,” Swift said. “What we really wanted to focus on was just being around the ball, whether it was thrown short or thrown long, we just wanted to fly around and get to it as a whole unit. [What we realized] is that there weren’t too many deep threats, but we are definitely prepared and ready for those whenever they do come.”

The defense passed the first test of the season on the road against what was projected to be a prolific offense.

“We take pride in what we do,” Swift said. “There have been some question marks as far as what our defense can do. We definitely play every game and go into every practice with a chip on our shoulder.”

Contact Brian Buckey at: bbuckey@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.

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