Football coaches wouldn’t praise a defensive player for “having a great motor” if relentless pursuit was the norm. The phrase has become part of the game’s lexicon because, to borrow another axiom, few players “play to the whistle” every single down.
And understandably so.
A football field is sizable. If a linebacker is in pass coverage on one side and the play goes to the other, odds are he won’t factor in the outcome.
What’s the sense in hightailing it all the way across field at the behest of the improbable? Isn’t it natural for the mind to tell the body, “Ease up. You’re too far away to make a difference?”
“It’s against human nature,” said UB defensive coordinator Lou Tepper. “For example, when a linebacker pulls up, squares up, he’s reading the quarterback’s indication and the quarterback throws the ball, the first natural inclination is …” (Tepper turns his head casually) “… yeah, that’s nice.’ Or, ‘I’m going to jog over.’
“We started the training in the spring, it was slow, but basically what we’re saying is that … we expect them to turn and sprint. What we tell them is based in our experience, if you will do that over a course of 70 plays you will probably make one big play that you would not have made otherwise. And they look at you and say, in their minds, ‘it ain’t worth it.’ But the power is you get 11 guys doing that, and you have 11 chances to make big plays.”
A striking example of relentless pursuit paying dividends came in the Pitt game Oct. 20. The Panthers fooled the Bulls with a screen pass and Rushel Shell followed a caravan toward the end zone. Linebacker Khalil Mack, in a full-out sprint from the other side of the field, caught Shell inside the 10 and ultimately the Panthers settled for a field goal. That mad dash, it turned out, was worth four points on the scoreboard.
In last week’s victory over Miami, Lee Skinner forced what might have been a meaningless fumble if fellow linebacker Willie Moseley had taken an early quit instead of putting himself in position to make the recovery.
“He ran all the way across the field,” Tepper said. “Willie Moseley last spring would not have gotten close to that ball. But he sprinted across the field and he made a play.”
Tepper began preaching full-out pursuit when he joined the coaching staff last spring. He knew it might take some time to get his players to buy in and then recondition their natural thought processes.
“It involved a huge adjustment,” said defensive end Steven Means. “From just rushing the passer, then the deep pass is thrown, I was kind of like jogging to the ball, or just turning and watching it and hoping it didn’t get completed. Now I’m 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and I got to stop and dig in the turf and run all the way as fast as I can to the ball.”
Maybe it’s no coincidence he had a career-high 10 tackles last week.
“One thing coach Tep is for sure is about pursuit,” Moseley said. “And that makes the whole defense better. It’s not for sure that that guy you’re looking at going down the field behind the guy carrying the ball is going to make that tackle. Now you’re pursuing. He wants all 11 hats around the ball. Like if a guy forces a fumble, like Lee Skinner did in the game last week, and I was able to recover the fumble. That was a pursuit play.”
Statistics underscore the strides that have been made. The Bulls have risen to third in the Mid-American Conference in total defense. They’ve held their last four home-field opponents to 25 points or fewer; two-thirds of the 120 teams in the FBS average more than 25 points. Another big challenge comes Saturday when explosive Western Michigan visits UB.
“We’re a lot better right now than we were when we started,” Tepper said. “I hope we can continue and we can get better. It’s just one step at a time.”
Quarterbacks Joe Licata, Alex Zordich and Tony Daniel are all taking snaps in practice this week. Licata started in place of the injured Zordich on Saturday and helped the Bulls to a 27-24 victory over Miami. Bulls coach Jeff Quinn is unlikely to name his starter before game day.