What Happened to Football’s “Code Black” Defense?
The UNCP football team just wrapped up their 2018 campaign with yet another underwhelming season. They finished with a dismal record of 2-8 for a second consecutive season and again failed to make it to the postseason.
The last time that Braves reached the playoffs was in the 2016 season when they used an explosive offense and dominant defense to make it to the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The team finished the season with an overall record of 10-2 , undefeated at home and going 5-0 at Grace P. Johnson Stadium
After the exodus of some the programs veteran players, leadership and all-time record holding offensive play makers, the team was expected to lean on a still very talented and deep defense. The defensive line nicknamed “Death Row” is where the program’s all-time leader in sacks in senior Tyler Hinton has led the unit over the past few years.
However, what was supposed to be the backbone of this team while they transitioned to and began cultivating a young offense that would feature a litany of first and second-year players, the defense has been woefully under performing for the past two years. So much so that even their vaunted pass rush has gone through stretches in which they put little to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
No single faction of the defense is responsible for their gradual deterioration or shoulder the majority of the blame as they all play off of each other. The pass rush goes hand and hand with the coverage in the secondary.
The longer defensive backs can cover, the more time the defensive linemen and blitzers have to apply pressure and be disruptive in the backfield. So when it seems like one is struggling mightily it can also mean that another level of the unit is failing to do their part to aid the other.
This season especially, the Braves’ secondary constantly struggled to maintain tight coverage, break up or come down with contested catches as well on make plays when the ball is in the air as they only recorded six interceptions on the season four less than last year’s total and eight less from 2016, half of which belonged to redshirt junior Shawn Everett.
The pass rush has steadily dipped as well since their last winning season in which they racked up 35 sacks in 2016, down to 27 sacks in 2017 and then only managed to take down opposing quarterbacks on just 22 occasions this year. To add insult to injury, the defense will be losing over half of that production as the top to sack leaders from this past season in Hinton and fellow senior defensive end Tajai Liles will be graduating in the spring.
As ineffective as the pass rush and coverage was at times throughout this season, what was the most atrocious and glaring lack in proper execution was the fundamentals of tackling. On far too many instances early on and especially late in games whiffed, missed and broken tackles led to big plays and touchdowns for opposing offenses.
Although the unit was set up in precarious positions several times throughout the season as their young and inexperienced offense left them defending short fields as a result of turnovers or were put right back on the field after quick three-and -outs, they got progressively worse as the year winded down even when the offense began pulling their weight.
In four of their last six games the Braves were able to put over 20 points on offense, but the defense allowed 30 or more points during the same span of time. They were constantly susceptible to allowing long scoring drives, quick scoring strikes and chunk plays of all varieties. This year’s unit was egregiously vulnerable when defending the run. They allowed a grand total 2103 yards on the ground, 210 yards per game and five yards per carry.
While the defense will lose several starters and key contributors to spring commencement and voluntary departures from the program, the cupboards are not bare.
Along with Everett, the Black and Gold will be turning stalwart starters such as defensive linemen Domenique Davis and Taye Vereen. With the Hinton and Liles graduating, the Braves will look to redshirt freshman Adonai Aloma to step up in an increased role next season as the one of the incumbents.
Head Coach Shane Richardson was hired on the reputation of being a strong defensive-minded coach and his team’s defense has immensely underperformed and failed to live up to their usual high standards. They are going to need to vastly improve over the offseason or risk being in jeopardy of having another losing season or become a team that relies on their still maturing young offense to carry the load and bail them out on a regular basis.