JONESBORO -- For weeks, Arkansas State University's defense has been searching for answers. Slowly but surely, Coach Blake Anderson and defensive coordinator David Duggan believes the unit is finding them.
In the aftermath of a 52-38 loss at Georgia State on Oct. 5 -- when the Red Wolves surrendered 722 yards and 39 first downs -- ASU had to go back to the drawing board. Having a bye the next week allowed for more time to assess the damage and find solutions.
Since then, ASU's defense has experienced a significant scheme change and shifted position coaches. The Red Wolves have ditched their four-man front in favor of three down linemen, while adding a sixth defensive back.
"It scares you to death to make that big of a change midseason," Anderson said Monday.
So far, the change has led to two strong quarters against Louisiana-Lafayette on Oct. 17, and the best showing of the season Saturday against Texas State.
"We knew we had to do something," Anderson said. "With the bodies that we had available and what offenses look like today in our league, we'd be beating our head against the wall to continue to try to operate under the original four-down look. [We] didn't have the personnel to do it. Nothing exposed that more than playing Georgia State the way we did."
Injuries to the interior defensive line were the root cause for change.
Senior Kevin Thurmon broke his hand against Southern Illinois on Sept. 21, which sidelined him for two games. Then ASU lost junior Forrest Merrill for the year with a torn bicep against Troy on Sept. 28, sophomore Hunter Moreton went down the next week against Georgia State with a season-ending shoulder injury, and senior Tony Adams suffered a broken foot in practice during the bye, also ending his season.
Losing star cornerback Jerry Jacobs at Georgia on Sept. 14 didn't help, putting more pressure on the secondary to cover people.
Finding an answer required a major structural shakeup, which Anderson and Duggan expanded on Monday.
"It's fun for me. It really is," Duggan said of the changes. "Now it's challenging. It really, at times, it frustrates you. You wonder if OK, if we're not playing well, is it the right move?
"I really believe in the bottom of my heart this is the right decision to make for us moving forward."
In the shift, some defensive coaches have seen their roles adjusted.
Having two coaches assigned to the defensive line was no longer ideal, so tackles coach Ed Pinkham moved to coach the safeties, while ends coach Brandon Joiner -- the 2011 Sun Belt defensive player of the year while at ASU -- stayed put to oversee the entire defensive line.
Anderson said moving Pinkham was a no-brainer, and that allowed safeties coach Nick Paremski to focus solely on the nickel and dime backs. It was another simple transition, considering Paremski spent his first season at ASU in 2018 in charge of the outside linebackers, whose responsibility in ASU's defense essentially serves a similar function as a nickel back.
Duggan, who is also ASU's linebackers coach, now focuses primarily on the inside linebackers.
"Nick kind of stepped down into my world a little bit," Duggan said.
Both Anderson and Duggan said they've never experienced having position coaches change responsibilities so drastically midseason.
"Everybody handled it really, really well and was very open-minded about it," Anderson said. "If we're gonna do it, we need to go all in and make sure that kids are gonna get taught the right way, and they responded beautifully."
Said Duggan: "It's not the easiest thing as far as continuity and player comfort, but I think our players have adjusted really well. We've been a mature group."
Duggan on Monday recalled a recent conversation with senior safety B.J. Edmonds on his feelings about the defensive adjustments.
"He said, 'Coach, I just want to win,' " Duggan said. "So that really has been the mentality of our players, which has been great."
Multiple players also have had adjusted roles.
Senior Logan Wescott, who was once Darreon Jackson's backup at the nickel, is now a full-time starter. True freshman Anthony Switzer, who tallied six tackles and two tackles for loss against Texas State, is seeing more playing time in the dime spot. Junior defensive end Jeffmario Brown has seen snaps at linebacker and had a strip-sack Saturday, sophomore Thomas Toki saw snaps at nose guard, and junior Sosaia Tuitavake has moved from defensive end to tackle.
After a trial of the scheme change against run-dominant Louisiana-Lafayette -- a 37-20 loss in which ASU's defense looked good in stretches and bad in others -- the adjustments paid off in a big way Saturday. ASU allowed 30 yards of offense and one first down in the second half. Texas State scored 14 points and had three turnovers.
Anderson said the Red Wolves (4-4, 2-2 Sun Belt) did an improved job of sticking to their assignments, taking better angles and being more physical.
"We're starting to see guys get a little bit more familiar with what we're doing," Anderson said. "That's got to help us down the stretch."
Sports on 10/29/2019
Print Headline: Red Wolves adjust to new defense