Less is more. That has been the theme that Keith Patterson has gone by through this season. Injuries have factored in a little, but so has moving players around to get the most out of them.
Brandon Lindsey has been one example. Lindsey was initially the Panther back—the defense's standing rush end. Lindsey started the first game of the season at the Panther, but has made the last seven starts at defensive end. Initially, the move was to make room for Ejuan Price to see the field more. Price went on to start the next five games at Panther, before Greg Williams moved back in the starting lineup. Lindsey has responded, tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Williams had a season-high eight tackles in the game against Utah.
"We tried to reduce the number of people we're putting in," Patterson said. "Through game experience, that has allowed us to become a little more consistent. There's not as many mistakes, just by (reducing) playing time."
Williams started the first two games at Spur linebacker, before giving way to redshirt freshman Todd Thomas. Thomas sat out the Rutgers and the Utah game due to injury. It was also about that time that Williams picked up his game. Kevin Adams also worked his way into the lineup, but then was dismissed from the team last week.
The Panthers enter this week's game, with Williams and Thomas slated to start at the outside linebacker spots. There's no panic due to the loss of Adams, yet at the same time there's no push to get Price any more playing time. What the staff has found is to play Williams and Thomas as much as possible. There's a feeling that both can handle as many snaps as possible.
"I feel really good about that position," Patterson said. "Greg Williams has really stepped up. Todd Thomas is coming off and playing really well. They're good in practice the last couple weeks. It really has more to do with the people that are playing well than it has to do with what they're not doing. For whatever reason; academics, or there's just not things that go on in young men's lives; inexperience plays a big part in it."
At the inside linebacker positions, Patterson has stuck with seniors Tristan Roberts and Max Gruder. Shane Gordon was initially starting, before giving way to Roberts after the first game. The inside linebacker positions struggled earlier in the season with some of the underneath routes. Despite using less personnel, this position has improved in this area as the season has gone along. Patterson won't rule out Gordon making an impact to the program at some point, but he's found that sticking with just two guys has helped the inside linebacker positions the most.
"I think it's combination, maybe a little bit of both," Patterson said. "What happens to freshmen that's tough on freshmen is early in the season when you have limited number of your packages in, then all of a sudden, it starts snowballing. Then, it changes every week. It's hard for a freshman to come in and keep up with all of that. Really, moreso than anything, I think you see guys playing better."
A pleasant surprise has been the play of Aaron Donald, who leads the team with seven sacks. Though Donald had not started, he is comfortable with his role. It works out in such a way that the senior players along the line—Lindsey, Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih—continue to start and provide a presence up front. Then, Donald comes along to be disruptive. Those seniors have continued to produce, while Donald continues to get his opportunity. Unselfishly, Donald accepts his role and credits those playing in front of him for helping put him in constant position to make plays.
"Myles is the leader, and you have Chas and you have Brandon; all big-time players," Donald said. "I'm trying to stand out just like they stand out; just working and learning from them. I like it because I'm learning from them. They're teaching me stuff that I need that's going to help me to grow and get better. That's all."
Patterson started in that Buffalo game, using a total of 18 players, through the various packages. That number dwindled down to as few as 14. Injuries have played a part of it. However, that combined with moving certain players around has allowed Patterson to use his personnel more efficiently. The result has been a defense that's been more comfortable, and more productive.
"We're just trying to bring it along slowly and make them digest it," Patterson said. "Our players, one, I think we have them in the right spot now. The more consistent you can be, the more you can add. I think they've been able to handle it a lot more here late in the season. Plus, things seem to slow down a little bit where the game is not as fast. I think we've handled it well."
At the same time, with four games left to play and certain players becoming more experienced, more comfortable with their roles, Patterson won't hesitate to mix things up if the situation presents itself.
"I feel better about where we have people, where their strengths are, and we just have to continue," Patterson said. "At this time of year is where you have to change things up. It's not wholesale changes, but you have to start keeping offenses because they have a good body of depth where they can draw some tendencies on some pressure situations, so we're trying to mix it up."