In the FCS Huddle: Defenses must catch OVC offenses

Nashville, TN ( - Game day may slow down for defenses in the Ohio Valley Conference this season.

As Jacksonville State defensive end Chris Landrum points out, defenses within what has come to be known as the Offensive Valley Conference have had plenty of experience getting up to the speed on a daily basis in practice.

"No huddle at practice, just getting the call and lining up, not being able to huddle up, it really slows it down at game time," Landrum says.

A number of OVC defensive coordinators are breathing a sigh of relief that the likes of 2013 Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback Jimmy Garoppollo and wide receivers Erik Lora, Jeremy Butler and Walter Powell have moved on since last season, which should at least give the defenses more of a fighting chance.

The OVC is coming off one of its best seasons - with three teams winning at least one FCS playoff game and champion Eastern Illinois and Jacksonville State reaching the national quarterfinals - and it won't be as pass-happy sans Garoppollo at the controls of Eastern Illinois' top-scoring offense in the FCS last season (48.2 points per game).

EIU was edged out by Jacksonville State for the top spot in the OVC's preseason poll released Monday at its media day, with Tennessee State - last year's other playoff qualifier - a close third.

TSU has been the exception in defending the high-tempo offenses, having led the OVC in total defense and scoring defense a year ago and finishing sixth and seventh, respectively, in the nation.

"I think you'll see it kind of get back in balance this year," said UT Martin coach Jason Simpson, whose team is usually in the title conversation. The Skyhawks were picked fifth in the nine-team conference.

"I think you'll see earlier in the year you won't see those 50-, 40-(point) games in the conference. Then as quarterbacks progress, it's probably whoever progresses the most will do well."

Some of the returning quarterbacks are a little more running-style this season and the defensive stars are more numerous. Tennessee State has one in each unit with 2013 OVC defensive player of the year Anthony Bass at defensive end, Nick Thrasher at linebacker, and both Daniel Fitzpatrick and De'Ante Saunders in the secondary.

Fitzpatrick and UT Martin linebacker Tony Bell are on the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List. Eastern Illinois has standouts with defensive tackle Dino Fanti and safety Jourdan Wickliffe, while free safety Marty Jones fuels Tennessee Tech's defense.

"I think the biggest thing is having a good pass rush," Eastern Kentucky safety Brandon Stanley said. "I think that's where it starts out, forcing that quarterback to make a quick decision. It also comes down to a lot of film study. You spend a lot of hours in the room when the coaches aren't even there. Just to know and have an anticipation of what (offenses are) doing and why they're lining up in certain formations."

"With the success our offenses had, I think football has ever changed," said new Jacksonville State coach John Grass. "I think you've seen the game progress on both sides of the ball. But the game has changed a lot over the last few years. I think defensively people are learning how to play the fast pace and be able to get lined up and play more base stuff. I love the way we play."

Fitzpatrick says TSU's vaunted defense comes up with new strategies with each game, but one of the keys is to be flexible throughout the season and not have to add too many packages weekly. That lessens the chance for mistakes against the superior offenses.

"We do feel like at Tennessee State University, you do have to be great on defense. And we tell our players that," TSU coach Rod Reed said.

"It also means if you're great on defense, you're pretty much a physical team - offensively and defensively. So we want to have that attitude when we go into a game that we're going to out-physical our opponents. And I think it starts with defense."

The biggest wrinkle being thrown at OVC defenses this season might come from Tennessee Tech, which has its best team on paper since winning the conference title in 2010. Golden Eagles coach Watson Brown will utilize two quarterbacks at the same time, with Jared Neal under center and Darian Stone split out by the line of scrimmage in a new hybrid QW (quarterback wing) position, or vice versa.

Anything to create more headaches for the defensive coordinators.

"Our strategy is you can't look at total defense anymore," Simpson said. "The days of giving up less than 250 yards are gone. You've got to get your turnovers.

"You hate to say 'bend, don't break' ... because you've got to get those turnovers and give your offense a chance for a big play."


Voted on by Head Coaches and Sports Information Directors

1. Jacksonville State (10 first-place votes), 118 points

2. Eastern Illinois (4), 110

3. Tennessee State (4), 107

4. Eastern Kentucky, 82

5. UT Martin, 79

6. Murray State, 54

7. Tennessee Tech, 48

8. Southeast Missouri, 34

9. Austin Peay, 16


Offensive Player of the Year - DaMarcus James, RB, Jacksonville State

Defensive Player of the Year - Anthony Bass, DE, Tennessee State


QB - Michael German, Tennessee State, Sr.

QB - Eli Jenkins, Jacksonville State, So.

RB - DaMarcus James, Jacksonville State, Sr.

RB - Shepard Little, Eastern Illinois, Jr.

WR - Adam Drake, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

WR - Josh Barge, Jacksonville State, So.

WR - Paul McRoberts, Southeast Missouri, Jr.

TE - Jeff LePak, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

C - Max Holcombe, Jacksonville State, Sr.

OG - Collin Seibert, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

OG - Blake Burks, Jacksonville State, Sr.

OT - Charles Sweeton, UT Martin, Sr.

OT - Robert Myers, Tennessee State, Sr.


DL - Anthony Bass, Tennessee State, Sr.

DL - Dino Fanti, Eastern Illinois, Jr.

DL - Caleb Lawrence, Jacksonville State, Sr.

DL - Chris Landrum, Jacksonville State, Jr.

LB - Nick Thrasher, Tennessee State, Sr.

LB - Tony Bell, UT Martin, Sr.

LB - Robert Haynes, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

LB - Tra'Darius Goff, Tennessee Tech, Sr.

DB - Daniel Fitzpatrick, Tennessee State, Sr.

DB - Jourdan Wickliffe, Eastern Illinois, Sr.

DB - Marty Jones, Tennessee Tech, Sr.

DB - De'Ante Saunders, Tennessee State, Sr.

Special Teams

PK - Andrew Lloyd, Eastern Kentucky, Sr.

P - Hamish MacInnes, Jacksonville State, Jr.

RS - Shepard Little, Eastern Illinois, Jr.

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