The zenith for them came at the south end of a snow-dusted Kevin Donley Field, with their backs to the new weight room and the train tracks and – prophetically, it turned out – the cemetery beyond.
Faulkner University had first-and-goal at the 2 that wintry late-November afternoon. Then the Eagles had second-and-goal at the 1.
Then they had nothing, zip, nada, as the Saint Francis defense buried Faulkner with full honors on third and fourth downs to preserve a 20-13 NAIA playoff victory.
And now, five months later?
It’s a new spring but hardly a new mindset for the Cougars defense, which returns a veteran linebacking corps plus defensive end Zach Bruce and a skilled but young defensive backfield centered on senior Kory Stamps.
We lost 19 seniors, but we’ve got the same speed as last year, which is great, says middle linebacker Kyle Mathewson, who teamed with fellow returnee Keith Harris for 151 tackles, nine sacks and 22 tackles for loss. But we also have some young guys coming in. Looking fast, looking physical so far.
The young guys include redshirt freshman Spencer Cowherd, who’s expected to further enhance a group that includes middle backer Koree Terrell (37 tackles, three for loss) and middle backer Mike Brevard (22 tackles).
That’s crucial, because (middle linebackers) are like the captains of the defense and we have some seniority at the middle linebacker position, Mathewson says. We’ve got some guys playing some roles that are crucial. We’ve got a lot of young guys playing their roles.
Gotta have people step up, Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley agrees.
The good news for the Cougars: The guys stepping up aren’t unfamiliar with the process.
In the defensive backfield, All-American Taylor Brown is gone, but Stamps is back and so are juniors Cale Tabler and Jerrell Holman and sophomore Na’Shawn Lewis-McClain, all of whom saw significant playing time last year. Tabler, in fact, was in on the play that stopped Faulkner for good on fourth-and-1 at the goal line.
Up front, Drake DeMuyt, a sophomore who was starting at nose tackle as a freshman at the end of the year, is back, as are Bruce and fellow defensive end Joey Dynako.
The numbers they’ll be shooting at: A ranking of 16th in the country last year in scoring defense (20.2 ppg), and 38th in passing defense (193 ypg).
Basically for me it’s about stopping the run, Mathewson says. Run defense and third downs really killed us last year. So third down conversions, the run game, that’s the key focus for me.
The other key focus is more obvious.
It’s all focused on getting to the national championship, Mathewson says. Anything we can do in the weight room, on the field, every day, that’s what we’re gonna do.