The leaders and <br>the playmakers

ELEVEN HATS to the ball was the way the Cougar defense played it in '03. What enabled them to play that way, and to be successful at it, was the confidence they had in themselves and each other. Defensive coordinator <b>Robb Akey</b> talks confidence and defensive philosophy—and how it relates to the '04 squad.

We wondered if there were any new wrinkles coach Robb Akey has up his sleeve for this coming season.

"I think we (first) need to look at who the guys are that we put on the field," laughed Akey. "And then when we find out those answers, (the question is) do we need new wrinkles? Or can we do what we've been doing."

"Can we still blitz and play man coverage the way that we have? Or do we need to do less of that? Do we need to do more zone pressure? Those are the things we'll evaluate based on who we have."

Its no secret which way Akey would like to play defense.

"When you look at attacking an offense, I think you know I'd obviously like to go after people," Akey said. "I like that."

"I think its better to be the aggressor but you have to have good blitzers. And you have to be able to cover to make that happen. So we'll need to find out: Are we as effective blitzing as we were? And I think we will be. I think we have a very good chance to be."

And if you blitz like the Cougs did in '03, you not only need to have a good secondary, you also need to mix things up and keep opponents off-balance.

"And then do we cover the way you need to, to pull off all out blitzes and those kinds of things," asked Akey. "And the thing I do like is we've combined our man pressures with zone pressures.. so I think that still gives us some freedom there."

It comes down to evaluation. And with Signing Day now having passed, that evaluation has already started by the time you read this.

"And the other thing we'll start doing (beginning last week) is evaluating every single thing we did during the course of this season and seeing what was good for us, and the things we need to fine tune a little bit—or that we need to do more of," said Akey.

ONE OF THE MORE interesting insights from coach Akey came when he talked about team speed. Many an observer noted how amazingly fast the Cougs were on D in '03. But there's more to it. It was more the style they played than an irreplaceable attribute some of these players took with them when they graduated. Coach Akey explains..

"I think we had good team speed but I don't know that we had GREAT team speed," said the defensive coordinator. "I thought the thing our guys did was best was that they played fast – that they played full speed—I mean, they just.. played.. hard.

"The best thing about this defense (in '03) was that they just finished. Those guys believed they could make things happen. And they flew around. They adopted the motto Eleven hats to the ball and they played that way."

"And that made us, I think, appear to be faster than we might really have been.. but I'm certainly not saying they were slow or anything."

"But it doesn't matter, if you've got a bunch of guys getting their tails to the football, it doesn't matter how you got there. And you can be real fast, but if you don't play hard, you may not look like a fast football team."

D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown were certainly two fast players out on the end. But think about that fact, from the overall team speed aspect.

"Consider, two of the fastest guys on the defense were the defensive ends," Akey pointed out.

"I think in the secondary we've got good speed. At linebacker, I think we might be a little faster. At the defensive line, we're not going to have two 4.5 ends, I don't think."

But there's also a difference in being fast and being quick; in running flat out towards a quarterback over a 12-yard sprint and putting him on his back, versus a forty time run without pads.

If this defense adopts the same style of play, if they practice Eleven hats to the ball, there is no good reason why sitting in Martin next year, you won't overhear those next to you marvel at how fast the Cougs are on D again this year.

ONE OF THE KEYS to last season was the very solid staff of assistants the Cougs have on D. With Mike Walker on the d-line, Ken Greene coaching the defensive backs, Leon Burtnett in charge of the linebackers, coach Akey has an exceptional group of guys he works with on the defensive side of the ball.

"I think you're always learning some things on the fly," said Akey when asked if there were things that came as a surprise in his first year as the defensive coordinator.

"I expected it, but (it was just reinforced to me) we have a really strong defensive staff. We have a lot of guys with great knowledge that do a great job with young guys."

And the players who will be on the field this year; they have spent their careers learning from a strong group of players as well.

"I think I also learned we had a special group of players," Akey said. "They really responded to challenges and did a tremendous job of taking tough situations and making them (turn in their favor.) And I think the confidence factor they developed over the course of the season, that really stood out to me."

"I think real good things can happen when you've got that confidence factor, you make some good things happen."

It will be interesting to watch the young talent in the Cougs' lineup develop that high confidence level in '04. And over the next few years as well.

"There's a lot of young players on that defense, the unknown kids, that are going to be really good players for us," said Akey. "Some of them may take a little time to get themselves going, but I think there's a lot of bright spots for the future, and some of them may be the season after next."

So who are there other guys, those unknown guys, that might be impact players?

"I'll tell you after Spring Ball," laughed Akey.

Again, something every defensive player should relish hearing—they all have an opportunity this offseason to work hard and get in there for Spring Ball and two-a-days camp and make their mark.

And that opportunity most assuredly extends to the veterans coming back; to seize the dual roles of playmaker and leader.

"A lot of those guys that are coming back with experience, those are the guys we need to go to and those are they need to play leadership rolls for us, as well as playmaking roles for us," Akey stressed.

"I think those are very capable guys. I think Karl Paymah is very capable of that. I think both those safeties are, Hamza Abdullah and Jeremy Bohannon. I know Will Derting is."

"And I think Scott Davis is. I really think Scotty Davis going to be an impact player. Adam Braidwood and Mkristo Bruce are only going to get better."

"And I really hope Reyshawn Bobo will give us that speed pass rush that we've had. I'd like to hope that he'll be able to continue that going for us," said Akey.

What stands out about the D is there is an awful lot of young talent, just waiting to step to the plate. The cupboard is fully stocked. For both this upcoming season.. and beyond.

Cougfan Top Stories