Jacksonville State has been in its 3-4 defense for eight years now — ever since it joined the Ohio Valley Conference — and while the Gamecocks haven’t exactly perfected their play in the scheme, they’re getting pretty good at it.
If you look at their stats or the NCAA rankings since the switch, with the exception of the occasional dip, the trend is improving numbers every year. Even when there has been a spike, the numbers are better the following season.
“It’s a lot different now than it ever was,” Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe said. “When you work at something long enough, you ought to see improvement.”
In 2003, the first season they went to it, they ranked 93rd out of 121 Division I-AA teams nationally in total defense (397.17 yards per game), 119th in pass defense (276.50) and 47th in scoring defense (23.17 points) — all their worst position since the transition.
Last season, when their won-loss record was good enough to get them in the NCAA playoffs but their past academic sins wouldn’t allow it, they ranked 23rd in total defense (304.82), eighth in pass defense (154.91) and 12th in scoring defense (17.09) — and that was with playing two nationally ranked BCS teams to open the year.
In the middle of it all — 2006 — they ranked in the top 20 of all five major statistical defensive categories.
“We do focus on improvement,” Crowe said. “Maybe not the statistical improvement as much as the functional improvement. I’ve always thought we made honest evaluations with ourselves. We’re not afraid to say we’re not very good here or there. Honest assessments are the beginning of whatcha gonna do about it.
“The biggest part of it is raising the level of players who are playing, but the other part of it is — and I give a lot of credit to Greg (Stewart, the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator) — we’ve become a little more specialized.”
The word that immediately comes to mind is sophisticated. A couple weeks ago, Stewart pointed over to a bookshelf in his office that contained several defensive playbooks two inches thick of paper that needed to be installed in the first six days of training camp. He calls it “getting out of the box.” Of course, what gets used from its pages are determined by the specific opponent, but the players still have to know it all.
“The last thing he wants to be accused of is that, that’s not his style,” Crowe said of his coordinator. “I do think we have become pretty sophisticated. That requires you have smart football players and a highly integrated coaching process for smarter players. We can present a problem every week to somebody.
“We’ve probably finally fully evolved more to what I understood as Brother’s (Bill Oliver) approach to it, but we really had to evolve there. It wasn’t ‘OK, line up and do this.’ … Every spring it looks like to me we go out there with an understanding of where we are and where we need to get.”
It also makes things easier when the same guy is in place directing traffic. Stewart, the longest-tenured defensive coordinator and assistant coach currently in the OVC, is in his 20th season on the JSU staff and has been the only DC the Gamecocks have known during Crowe’s term as head coach. He has seen the transition of their 3-4 come a long way.
“When we first started doing it, if you were watching it and knew anything about the 3-4, it was probably pretty embarrassing, because we were feeling our way through everything,” Stewart said. “I think we’re very comfortable with it now.”
It’s a scheme that optimizes speed, especially on the outside, making it tough for blockers to get into the second level of defense. Graduated linebacker Alexander Henderson had more than 100 tackles each of the last two seasons. As a team, the Gamecocks averaged 72 tackles for loss and 20 sacks each of the last two seasons and are looking for ways to put even more pressure on the football this season.
Junior defensive tackle Jamison Wadley admitted he didn’t think he’d like playing the scheme when he first stepped into it, but now he embraces it as routine.
“We’ve been playing it so long now, it just seems like second nature,” he said. “Me and Monte (Lewis) have been together since we were freshmen, so we’ve done basically the same thing three years now, and it just makes everything a lot easier. You don’t have to think when you’re out there playing; you can just relax and play. That makes the game real easy.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.