PITTSBURG — Time is everything for the Pittsburg State defensive linemen, who work everyday to get to opposing quarterbacks as fast as possible from the moment the ball is snapped.
When battling in the trenches, the Gorillas plan to use their strength, athleticism and discipline to help win games in what they hope will be a better season.
“We’re hoping to do a lot better than last year,” PSU defensive lineman Willie Cooper said. “We have high expectations and I think it’s going to be a lot different this year. We’ve been growing closer as a brotherhood all summer long and hopefully we can keep that going throughout the season. We’re going to face adversity sometimes, but we’re going to be able to get through it.”
To meet those expectations, the Gorillas have been using preseason practices to develop in all aspects of the game.
“We’re developing mental toughness and the ability to just be physical at the point of contact,” PSU defensive line coach Ryan Hellwig said. “That’s something that we’re really stressing to them and it’s great that we get to practice against our offensive line. Coach Wells does a great job of teaching his kids how to be physical, and it seems like everyday we’re seeing one of the most physical units upfront that we’ll ever see and we have to match it.”
Although the defensive line isn’t traditionally thought of as a skill position, being able to control the line of scrimmage and get to the quarterback quickly is one of the most important jobs on defense.
“As a group, we feel like we have to do better,” Cooper said. “As a defensive line, we have to set the tone, and if we do that, the other guys will follow us. We want to put all the weight on our backs and set the tone.”
Every second counts when the ball is in the hands of the opposing quarterback, who is quickly surveying the field for an open receiver.
“I tell my guys we have to get to the quarterback in 2.75 seconds,” Hellwig said. “That’s just on average. If the quarterback holds it three seconds or longer, that’s a win for the offense. There’s other factors that go into that, such as the amount of blockers the offense has. If they go seven or eight-man protection, that time moves up, but if it’s five or six-man protection and there’s four of us rushing, we don’t want him holding it three seconds or longer.”
Playing on the defensive line is no easy task and sacks are not always going to be the outcome, so making the quarterback adjust and forcing incomplete passes or turnovers is celebrated.
“It’s not all about sacks,” Hellwig said. “We don’t say that we have 2.75 seconds to get a sack, we want to alter the throw, to make him clutch, to make him move his feet, to change his arm angle, to make him pull it down, to make him freeze or to make him throw it away. It’s not just to get a sack and that’s sometimes hard to get your kids to buy into. They always want sacks, but your job is to make sure the quarterback doesn’t have an uncontested throw.”
Battling against strong offensive lines throughout a long game can take its toll on players, so developing depth remains a point of focus for the coaching staff.
“Depth is something we have always felt is very important,” Hellwig said. “If you’re going to put your hand on the ground and play in the trenches, your motor has to be going nonstop from the time the ball is snapped, to the time the whistle blows and I’d rather not ask one person to do that 70 or 80 times a game. I want to put a fresh guy out there and just keep his motor going for 20 plays or so to cut the starter down to about 60 plays per game. It just keeps them more fresh and we feel like we have the depth to do that. We feel like that’s an advantage for us.”
As a result of the need for depth, the underclassmen will have plenty of opportunity to prove their worth.
“We’ve got some younger guys who we’re going to count on,” Hellwig said. “We’ve been getting everybody familiar with their assignments and making sure we avoid mental mistakes early in the season.”
Making a return for PSU this fall on the defensive line will be the two seniors José Speer and Cooper, who will be leading the young group of linemen.
“The leadership is very important,” Hellwig said. “Not only can it serve as a guidance, but it also sets the tone. Our young guys will have to be the leaders when the seniors and juniors leave and they have to know how to pick up where the upperclassmen left off. Our senior leadership is not only important for this team, but also for the teams down the road when these young guys become they veterans.”
While strength is a big part of playing on the line of scrimmage, being smart and staying disciplined is the key to avoiding penalties.
“You have to have tremendous focus,” Hellwig said. “You have to be coiled and ready to attack the second the ball moves. We talk about seeing your key and striking your key all the time, but you can’t move until the ball moves. You have to be mentally disciplined to tone out the quarterback’s voice and just use your visual aids.”
The road ahead is long, but the Gorillas are focusing on getting a win in week on and going from there.
“It’s a new year,” Hellwig said. “I think our kids have bought into the mentality of taking it one play at a time. I think our kids have a chip on their shoulder. They know what the expectations are here and they know we have to meet and exceed those expectations. They’ve bought into the mentality of being ready when we step onto the field against Central Missouri and nothing else. That’s the only thing our kids are consumed with and you can see it. They have tremendous focus and that’s the start of making this a successful season.”
— Jordan Buckamneer is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @jbuckamneer.