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Zoned-out Monarchs to give man coverage a try
In reshaping Old Dominion’s defensive philosophy, an old-school method came to the surface: Why not play man-to-man coverage?
“Hardly anybody plays it anymore,” said Keita Malloy, who has taken over as the defensive backfield coach. “People don’t play it anymore because they are concerned with the consequences rather than the results.”
The results last season for the Monarchs were abysmal; ODU finished 104th in the Football Championship Subdivision when it came to defending the pass.
The consequence was the dismissal of defensive coordinator Andy Rondeau and defensive backs coach Jarod Dodson at season’s end.
In stepped Bill Dee, who has taken over as ODU’s defensive coordinator, and Malloy. Both were coaching on the offense in the fall, with Dee managing the offensive linemen while Malloy oversaw ODU’s receivers.
From the moment the two knew they were moving to the defensive side, they agreed something needed to be done.
“We need to play to the strengths of our personnel,” Dee said. “Personally, I’m not a big proponent of man-to-man coverage, but I also know we have veterans in our secondary that can play this type of scheme, and it will help our guys up front get to the quarterback.”
T.J. Cowart, who was lost to the Monarchs in the second game of the season last fall with a broken wrist, is expected to be ODU’s top one-on-one coverage cornerback, with Eriq Lewis a close second.
But the player who really has a chance to make man-to-man coverage is linebacker Craig Wilkins, the school’s all-time leading tackler.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Wilkins was a strong safety when he arrived. He has maintained his safety-like quickness while adding 38 pounds in the past four years.
“Craig can cover slot receivers downfield for us,” said offensive coordinator Brian Scott, who is seeing ODU’s change in defensive philosophy from a different perspective. “There aren’t many linebackers who can do that. And what he gives us is a linebacker who can play in a nickel package, which means we don’t have to change personnel to play a nickel coverage.”
Wilkins, though, also can rush the quarterback and is dangerous when the Monarchs blitz. And man-to-man coverage is about getting to the quarterback.
“If we have five guys covering five receivers who are running routes, that leaves six guys who are trying to get to the QB,” ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said. “If our defensive backs can cover the other team’s receivers for three seconds, we should be able to get to the quarterback.”
For the past three years, the Monarchs relied on the “zone fire” approach to defense, where there’s always at least one defender playing deep coverage as a last line of defense. Mention to Dee that the Monarchs gave up a touchdown on a fourth-and-29 play to Towson that cost ODU a chance at the CAA title, and he leans back, looks to the ceiling and draws a deep breath.
“We’re going to hear about that play until we go out and do something about it,” Dee said. “From now on we need to look at fourth downs as opportunities to show people how well we can play.”
Lewis said the switch has helped the Monarchs become “more mentally tough” during spring workouts.
“You have to be tuned in to play man,” Lewis said. “Playing as much zone as we have has made us lazy with our eyes and unfocused at times.”
Malloy said he wants his defensive backs to play physical football.
“We need to bump receivers, get them off their routes and not let them run in open spaces,” Malloy said. “And if we get a couple of calls against us, I’ll live with that. But we’ve got to stop being a safe team.”
This switch doesn’t mean ODU will play nothing but man coverage. It does, though, add a weapon to the arsenal.
By Rich Radford, The Virginian-Pilot