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Catamount Conversation: Matt Pawlowski, Assistant Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator
As the curtain is set to rise on the 2009 college football season with the opening of fall camps across the nation, players, coaches and fans alike will begin to get a glimpse of how what individuals have done since the final whistle of 2008 will impact future success.
Western Carolina assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, Matt Pawlowski, has examined that very thing from an on-paper, black-and-white and statistical perspective, but also from a philosophical stand point.
“Last year, we improved statistically in all the major categories every step of the way from where we were the previous season both in the Southern Conference and nationally. We improved, but not anywhere near the expectation that you are going to win a lot of football games,” said Pawlowski. “
Inside the numbers, Western ranked sixth overall in both scoring and total offense, but led the Southern Conference in pass defense, limiting opponents to 172.8 yards per game which ranked 28th nationally. The Catamounts intercepted 12 passes, fifth in the SoCon, and ranked third in the conference – 26th nationally – in turnover margin with a +7.
The issue came in rush defense. WCU allowed opponents to rack up nearly 200 yards of offense on the ground a season ago ranking the Catamounts eighth in the nine-team SoCon and 104 out of the 118 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision squads.
“Rush defense is one of the major categories you look at when start to dissect a defense and determine exactly how good you can be. Every defensive coordinator will tell you, you want to stop the run first and make people throw. Last year, we were very strong against the pass, but that can be skewed by our inability to consistently stop opponents’ run attack,” Pawlowski continued.
Statistics and chalk talk aside, Pawlowski felt that through the course of the season, the one major area in which the defensive unit – and Catamount football team as a whole – improved was in its mindset.
“We opened up last season with a shutout victory over Shorter and our guys were feeling good about themselves. Then, we went to Florida State and surrendered 69 points. I wasn’t upset about the fact that we gave up 69 points to FSU; I was upset with how we gave up those 69 points,” said Pawlowski. “We didn’t do any of the things that we had worked on up until that point; fundamentally, mentally, physically, we had reverted right back to where we were (the previous season). You could see it as soon as it hit the fan and things started going south – and that is what I was most upset with during and mostly after the game.”
Yet out of the disappointment and disheartening defeat, Pawlowski was impressed with the way the team responded.
“After the scolding, after the film review, our young men took a different mental and physical approach in taking ownership and saying, ‘Hey, you know what – it is on us.’ And every week, we got better and better – not by leaps and bounds – but by little step after little step.”
In Pawlowski’s eyes, another one of the biggest turning points in last season came following the heart-breaking home loss to Georgia Southern – a game which saw the Catamounts surrender 35 unanswered points in the final 11 minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime session.
What impressed him the most was the way the team bounced back the following week against Chattanooga and played what he described as a “rock solid four quarters of football.
“Those young men could have easily reverted back to old habits. They could have hung their heads, but instead, what they did was to tighten their belts, took it upon themselves and came back to get a Southern Conference win. And that you could see was the beginning of the turning point where they saw that things needed to change and what this coaching staff is bringing to the table will in fact work,” said Pawlowski.
One constant theme throughout the program over the past 18 months has been “change.” Pawlowski states that the change in question is not so much about the schematic or the football part, but more in changing the culture and mentality of the players within the program.
“What we have said from day one is that we have got to change the culture here in our everyday mentality. That not only deals with the game of football, but also the game of life, everyday accountability and responsibility, and being what we’ve talked about from the beginning – about being a great teammate which is just as valuable as being called a brother or sister in this, our football family,” Pawlowski said.
He summed it up by stating, “Last year, I didn’t care about the wins and losses; I cared about how our kids prepared – how did they feel about themselves, their teammates, their coaches and the shape of this football program in representing Western Carolina on a day-in, day-out basis.”
Following the year, Pawlowski liked what he saw during both spring practices, but also through the off-season workouts for the players, continuing to stress his philosophy of each defensive player needing to be one-eleventh of the defense.
“We got better in spring practice,” said Pawlowski. “We gained a better understanding of our schemes and understanding of our techniques and playing team defense. And every day, we got better for 15 practices and we were light years ahead of ourselves from one spring practice 365 days removed from another.”
Mindset and understanding has also begin a guiding force during the off-season and summer workouts, according to Pawlowski.
“Our players now have the understanding that for us to win, we have to do these things, they have to have a year-round commitment and have got to have a daily focus,” said Pawlowski in reference to the off-season regiment.
He continued, “For our upperclassmen, the light bulb has gone on. We have some established upper-class leadership that care about the daily duties of their teammates. And what I am most proud of is how our returning upperclassmen have stepped up and are helping translate the ‘us’ into ‘them’ in caring about our program’s newcomers. They are translating the things we talk about during recruiting – about our direction, our philosophies, traditions and responsibilities – they are relaying those on to the new players rather than it having to simply come from us as coaches. That is what I’m most fired up about – they are taking that responsibility and accountability.”
Pawlowski was especially complimentary to three seniors on the defensive side of the ball in Chris Collins, Antoine George and Gene Singletary – all of who were named honorary captains following spring drills.
“I want to publically applaud those three young men for how they have stepped up this off-season,” said Pawlowski. “They stepped up and took the proverbial bull by the horns – not only to improve themselves, but they’ve bought in to being that leader and wanting teammates to gravitate towards them not so much by what they say but more importantly by what they do. They have exemplified what it is to be a leader every day.”
In talking X’s and O’s with Pawlowski, he feels that familiarity with the system and the time put in by all involved has been the biggest improvement from year one entering year number two.
“Through a season and the off-season workouts and meetings including the spring, our young men have a better knowledge and understanding of our scheme and their roles and responsibilities within that scheme,” Pawlowski said. “The more they get, the more experience you have and the more repetitions, then the easier it is and the faster they play – so they aren’t thinking or guessing but are knowing and reacting and playing fast. That’s where we are certainly better.”
He does not anticipate any changes to the defensive philosophies or mentalities as the squad opens fall camp on Friday.
“We are a read and attack defense and our players like that type of mentality – that’s who I am and that’s what we do. I feel it’s the only way you can stop offenses in college football today. We will add a little bit more, but we aren’t going to change. We are going to continue to go and attack, create disruptive plays and takeaways, and try to create better field position for our offense.”
Pawlowski also is confident that through young players earning time on the field a season ago, and through successful recruiting, Western has developed depth and created competition at every position.
“We have created depth and more guys that we can count on that when given the opportunity, they can win for us – and I use the term ‘win for us’ because anyone can line up for you. But, can they win for you? And we really feel good about where we’re at,” Pawlowski concluded.
The Western Carolina Catamount football team reports for fall camp on Friday, Aug. 7, with the first practice scheduled for the morning of Saturday, Aug. 8.
By Western Carolina University Media Relations