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Defensive changes aplenty for Red Wolves under Jones

by Eli Lederman | March 21, 2021 at 3:16 a.m.

Coach Butch Jones closed Arkansas State University's fifth spring practice with a red-zone scrimmage pitting the Red Wolves' units against one another, and a clear winner emerged.

"Defensively, I thought this was the best day that we've had in terms of overall consistency," Jones said. "There was no let up. I think we learned some things offensively. We're not as good as everybody says we are."

ASU's final practice before spring break delivered an early win for a Red Wolves defense undergoing a needed transformation this offseason. Nine starters return in 2021 to a defense that allowed 37.2 points per game in 2020, finishing 112th in scoring defense across the FBS while giving up more yards per game (470.8) than all but 13 teams in the nation.

With little turnover, Jones and first-year defensive coordinator Rob Harley are attempting to change that defense both mentally and schematically in 2021. To them, Thursday's performance came as the latest in a series of steps in the right direction.

"When you have success in anything, you want to have more," Harley said. "I think today we had some of that and they were hungry for more. They really rose to the occasion."

Jones avoided speaking specifically about what he felt needed to change from a defense that allowed the second-most passing yards in the nation last fall first under defensive coordinator David Duggan and later under interim coordinator Nick Paremski. Instead, he continued to drive home his focus on limiting "explosive plays," upping ASU's physicality and educating his players on the discipline and fundamentals required to play "championship style defense."

It's a mindset shared by Harley, who joined the Red Wolves in December after six seasons as a linebackers coach at Pitt. Molded under the tutelage of defensive-minded Panthers Coach Pat Narduzzi, Harley helped guide a Pitt defense that finished 20th in total yardage in 2020, and carries an approach to defense as a game-changing force. That urgency is already being imparted on his new defense with the 2021 season still seven months away.

"We have to believe that what we do and how we perform will win the game or lose it," Harley said. "It's the mentality of every play. Every rep matters. They players buying into that right now."

The Red Wolves have held five practices and only three in full pads, but defenders such as senior linebacker Caleb Bonner and his teammates are already feeling the results of the mentality shift.

"We're flying around a lot faster," he said. "We're way more physical. I think we're just all around better this year."

The switch to a four-down defensive scheme is the tangible change ASU has made on the field. The set-up is designed to place a heavy presence at the line of the scrimmage with a priority on stopping the run first. The scheme also gives the Red Wolves -- who lost nine of its 20 sacks from 2020 with the departures of Justin Rice and Forrest Merrill -- an extra pass rusher to send at opposing quarterbacks.

Jones said he intends his defense to be multiple and able to drop in and out of different schemes over the course of a game, but that the four-down scheme will be the standard, a fact reflected in the defensive line heavy recruiting class ASU inked in the winter.

"I've always been around 4-down defense," Jones said. "We're going to be based on the four-down front and that's why we hired Rob Harley. Him and the staff have done a really good job."

Thursday proved a success for the evolving defense, besting the the Red Wolves' offense in the most competitive practice under Jones yet. Even so, there's more work to be done.

"There's a lot going on," Jones said. "So when you step back through practice No. 5, we've made a lot of progress. A lot of progress. But we're nowhere near where we need to be."

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