Departing seniors leave behind defensive legacy

AS THE COUGS went into last season, many wondered how a defense that lost a first round draft pick and Outland Trophy winner would fare. That question was answered in dramatic fashion by this senior class. And as strong as their play was on the field, the mental toughness the defense exhibited was just as impressive.

Seniors like Erik Coleman, Virgil Williams and Jason David in the secondary provided the coverage necessary to allow the team to blitz as often as they did. Linebacker Don Jackson shut down the middle and Al Genatone provided both outstanding leadership and play. And D.D. Acholonu, Jeremey Williams, Tai Tupai and Isaac Brown did a remarkable job up front.

This was quite a group of student-athletes—Both on the field and off.

"Oh, I'm going tell you," said defensive coordinator Robb Akey when asked how tough it was to bid farewell to these accomplished seniors. "It was REAL hard to say goodbye to those guys. They've done a tremendous job for us. The entire senior class. What they've done for this program is incredible."

"And those guys are a great group of kids too. Yeah, it was an emotional deal. Its tough to say goodbye to them—You're excited about the future, but you're going to miss a lot of what they did. And you're going to be anxious to see who's going to fill their shoes."

But its not truly goodbye. Cougs have a tendency to stay close to the program.

"Oh I think they will," Akey said when asked if he expects they will keep in touch. "I hope that they all had—and I think that they all had—a really good experience. And I know we're all really proud of them and what they accomplished and we want to keep them as close to the program as we can."

ASKED IF JACKSON'S PLAY at MLB this past year was a surprise, coach Akey said ‘Yes and No'. The coaches knew what he was capable of—it was a matter of if he could stay healthy while playing at the high level he was capable of in his second and final year. And did he ever.

"The position that was the biggest uncertainty going into the season was the middle linebacker," said Akey.

"So the emergence of Donnie Jackson and what he did was something of a surprise—now we were hoping that would be the case, but we didn't know if it was going to be him or one of the other guys. So that was the key spot that got solidified as we came out of camp."

How good was he and how important was his play to the defense's overall success?

"Oh he did an outstanding job," said Akey. "He flew around, he did a great job of understanding the packages better. It was his second year, (and in the year before), he was learning the packages on the fly, plus he had the injury."

"He did a tremendous job, he made big plays, he did a great job flying around. He really helped us solidify the run, and he did a great job as a blitzer too."

It can make one wonder ‘What if..' What if the Cougs would have been able to redshirt him—or redshirt more of the JUCO players in general. Yes, you could have them for that one extra learning year but that's not always possible. And in many cases, not desirable. You wouldn't want to hold a player back if it meant you might sacrifice some wins in the current year.

"You'd probably see a higher success rate for those guys, meaning you'd see them playing more games (at their highest level) if you had the luxury of being able to do that (redshirt more JUCO players)," said Akey.

"But that's also some of the reason you go get a junior college guy is because you're looking for some immediate help at that position. Its kind of a double edged sword (in that respect.)"

EVERY GAME from '03 has a great backstory. But there were a few that were especially noteworthy for coach Akey.

"The Oregon State game was one that stood out for me," Akey said. "The turnovers that were taking place, I mean defensively we felt we were playing pretty damn good. We gave up that one circus catch that went for a touchdown, which really should have been, in our opinion, intercepted."

While turnovers were a staple of the defense, they were also one of the challenges they were faced with late in the season. What the coaches want to guard against, if there are turnovers against you, is your defense can have a tendency to lose its mental sharpness.

"And so we (as coaches) felt like (wanted to communicate to the players), ‘Guys. We're doing fine..' But what you worry is when turnovers keep taking place, (you begin to worry about the players) losing it mentally a little bit."

"And you look in their eyes, and you kinda see where they're at–and they did a great job, they just kept taking the ball away as the game went on."

"And the same thing happened two weeks later in the UCLA game," Akey recalled with a laugh. What followed must have been a supremely satisfying moment for a defensive coach..

"Where in the Oregon State game we thought we might have to pull them along and make sure we didn't lose them, in the UCLA game they just looked at us and said ‘Don't worry Coach, we'll go get the ball back,'" said Akey.

Not all of the notable moments came from the victories.

"They just had a great confidence factor, and you saw that grow as the season went on," said Akey. "When we came back from Notre Dame, that was a mad crew of guys. Because we felt like defensively we had the opportunity to win that game and we didn't get the job done. And I think that helped us play the way we did in Colorado the following week."

"And Colorado being kind of an unknown opponent, and what I mean by that is that we hadn't played them before, we knew what we were attacking and we knew who they were. Our players hadn't competed against a Big 12 team, other than Oklahoma obviously, and it was a new deal, and you're playing at their place."

"And they went out and played like they owned the joint and did a great job and I think that gave them a great deal of confidence."

That confidence translated into a dominating performance against Oregon.

"And you see that turn over into what took place in the Oregon game," said Akey. "And things kind of flourished as the season went on, you saw them continually grow. It added more (to our belief that we) didn't want to put limitations on them. Keep challenging them to do things, just to rise up and make things happen."

And much like coach Bill Doba repeatedly mentioned this year, Akey stressed the players are the ones that deserve the credit.

"And again, it was a great group of kids that made (it all possible)," said Akey.

AND NOW IT falls to a different, talented group of players to make it possible in '04 and beyond. Hamza Abdullah, Steve Cook, Adam Braidwood, Alex Teems, Will Derting, Karl Paymah as well as other juniors and seniors will be looking to both continue and build upon the impressive standard this departing senior class established.

As will young players like Reyshawn Bobo, Mkristo Bruce, Scott Davis, Christian Bass, Don Turner, Matt Mullenix, and Hussain Abdullah, just to name a few.

Coming Tuesday, the second in a five part series. Coach Akey talks about the outlook for the linebackers in '04

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