A New Defense
Too Few Big Guys Prompts Change
HARRISONBURG – Missing at least a half-dozen skill players for the start of preseason football practice Thursday, Harrisonburg High School coach Chris Thurman decided to scrap offensive drills altogether and focus on defense.
Extra work in that area should be beneficial in more ways than one as the Streaks try to bounce back from a miserable 2013 season.
For the first time in memory, the Blue Streaks will operate their base defense out of the 4-3 front this season, switching from a 5-2 scheme for personnel reasons. More specifically, HHS continues to lack the experienced, big-bodied linemen who once were plentiful for a program that produced Landon Turner, a 2011 graduate entering his junior season as North Carolina’s starting right guard.
“We just don’t have as many big boys as they used to have here,” Thurman said. “We just don’t have those big, 300-pound defensive linemen. We don’t have ‘em.”
“That’s a big reason, lack of big men up front,” HHS defensive coordinator Marc Healy said of moving to a 4-3. “And not having to play big men on both sides of the ball for the whole game, because by the fourth quarter that was not faring very well for us.
“With the [4-3], we’ve got some kids coming back at linebacker that we think are going to be pretty good. We’ve got some unknowns at the line position. We’ve got a lot of ninth-graders and a lot of 10th-graders that are coming in for their first varsity experience.”
Quarterbacks coach Joe Carico will be entering his 25th season with the Streaks and could not remember HHS ever running a base 4-3 defense. Carico is a fan of the new look, which was conceived after Thurman consulted with Bridgewater College linebackers coach Kyle Gillenwater, the former James Madison University assistant, to help with Harrisonburg’s transition to its new primary defense.
“The way they’re doing it is really cool,” said Carico, who would not elaborate on details. “… Remember, I’m an offensive coach just watching some things that I know would give us some problems. I’m just watching it from that kind of a perspective.”
Why else would an early emphasis on defense help the Streaks?
Simply put, Harrisonburg’s unit needs to improve after giving up 35.9 points per game last fall, ranging from a season-low 24 points twice (in wins over E.C. Glass and Broadway) to a season-high 63 allowed in a home-opening loss to Handley.
“We weren’t very good on defense. We didn’t tackle really well,” said Healy, who cited depth on the line as a key problem in 2013. “So we’re going to have much more emphasis on playing as a team and as a unit and three-and-out.”
The good news? Healy said there were more linemen at HHS’s first practice than he expected. In total, there were 17 players participating in linemen-related drills Thursday afternoon. In comparison, the defensive backs group had 25 and the linebackers group had six.
As Healy and Carico pointed out, this isn’t the first time the Streaks are using a 4-3. In the past, they’ve dropped the nose guard back to morph from a 5-2 to the 4-3, a scheme Healy said HHS used on roughly a third of their defensive snaps.
However, Healy said the 4-3 package was limited last fall. Expanding it this season will mean adding new wrinkles with new terminology.
Walking over to the practice field from HHS, Thurman was thrilled that the team’s 2-8 campaign was officially in the past and that the Streaks could finally focus on a new chapter.
A new defense was at the forefront of that on a warm Thursday, particularly with only one healthy quarterback – junior Abner Johnson – able to participate out of three competing for what Carico called a “wide open” competition for the starting job. HHS graduated both of its quarterbacks with starting experience last year, Matt Shifflett and Ryan Nixon.
Freshman A.C. White was absent from practice, and junior Ranon Barber did not dress out due to a minor injury. Both are potential quarterbacks. White was HHS’s junior-varsity starting QB last fall, and Thurman said he’s the son of James Madison University assistant athletic director Kevin White, who played with Thurman at JMU.
To make the 4-3 successful, Harrisonburg will put its faith in a crop of linebackers led by junior Devin Medley, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound tailback expected to play both ways again this season.
Senior Campbell Rutherford (about 5-11, 185) will also help anchor the middle of the defense. Thurman said Rutherford moved back to the area from Colorado, where his older brother and former HHS all-state tight end Hayden Rutherford plays collegiately at Division II Colorado School of Mines.
“The other linebacker spot is really to be determined out here,” Thurman said. “It’s up for grabs.”