Coming off a season in which it led the MIAA in pass defense and picked off a Division II-high 28 passes, Northwest Missouri State's defense has devoted a lot of its attention this spring to the one area it can realistically expect to improve upon.
Stopping the run.
The Bearcats had the third-best run defense in the MIAA last year and surrendered three yards per game less than 2011, but those numbers weren't enough to satisfy defensive coordinator Richard Wright.
"I felt like we were decent against the run, but we weren't dominating against the run," said Wright. "That's something we're placing a lot of emphasis on. Just being physical and flying around to the football. It's not a lack of athleticism. It's a little bit of tentativeness not to make mistakes. Our guys are so conscientious. They worry about making mistakes rather than just going and playing fast. That's the thing we've really tried to emphasize this spring is playing fast."
Improving against the run is a challenge made more difficult by the departure of last year's top run-stuffer—defensive tackle Travis Chappelear. The potential future pro commanded double teams in the middle and still finished as Northwest's third leading tackler with 62.
Northwest also graduated nose tackle Ryan Meyer, marking the second straight year the Bearcats have had to replace both interior starters.
"It's always a challenge, but because we roll so many guys upfront, we gain depth and through that we gain a level of expectation," said Wright. "It's one man down and next man up. We're not going to replace Travis anymore than we replaced Josh (Lorenson) two years ago, but Josh left and it was a different positioned that emerged."
Wright looks for defensive end Matt Longacre, a two-year starter, to be the new anchor of Northwest's front four. He led the Bearcats with nine sacks last year and tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss.
Junior Zach Wiliams (6-3, 275) and redshirt freshman Brandon Yost (6-2, 280) are the leading candidates to be the team's new starting defensive tackle tandem. Both played extensively late last season in rotational roles.
Freshman Trey Randall (6-2, 275), freshman Cass Weitl (6-4, 240) converted fullback Bryant Hummel (6-2, 240) and Tristan Patterson (6-2, 250) project as the main back-ups at tackle.
Junior Rickey Bailey is slated to be Northwest's starting end opposite Longacre, with junior Matt Meinert, sophomore Jordan Chrisman, sophomore Kevin Arnold providing heavy competition. Meinert suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year's opener and won't be cleared to play until June.
Northwest's linebacking corps is also going through a transition this spring after the departures of All-American Collin DeBuysere and Matt Massey.
The lone hold-over of the group is hard-hitting sophomore D.J. Gnader. He led Northwest in tackles last year with 96 and was the second leading tackler as a redshirt freshman.
Page 2 of 3 - Wright says Gnader is moving back to the Mike position he played in 2011 and sophomore Eric Reimer will slide in as the new Buck linebacker in place of Massey.
Reimer played in all 13 games last year as a key back-up, recording 47 tackles and 3.5 for loss. According to Wright, he's got superstar potential.
"When you talk about a kid like Eric Reimer, you're going to see a Chad Kilgore kind of kid," said Wright. "That's his skill set. He's going to be unbelievable. As far as my evaluation as the defensive coordinator, he's the best football player on that defense this spring as far as making plays and knowing reads and being where he's got to be. He's got 'it.'"
At the rover position vacated by DeBuysere, it's a two-man race between Jayron Robinson and Cody Matthewson for the starting job.
Robinson was a special teams standout last year, blocking three punts, two of which came in the second half of the team's second round playoff loss to Minnesota St.-Mankato. He sat out the 2011 season with a knee injury. Matthewson appeared in all 13 games last year and finished with 17 tackles.
Wright mentioned Maryville native Cole Forney and Casey Sudhoff as freshmen that could crack the two-deep. Redshirt freshman Brock Sherman is another promising young linebacker.
One of the best in the nation a year ago, Northwest's secondary remains in tact at corner but not at safety. The Bearcats graduated last year's starting safety tandem of Nate DeJong and Clarke Snodgrass.
DeJong tied for the national lead with seven interceptions and was an All-American selection, while Snodgrass started the final five games after returning from a lingering hamstring injury.
Wright says their football smarts are what will be hardest to replace.
"We'll have guys that physically are as good or better," said Wright. "Actually, if I'm being perfectly honest with you, they're athletically better. The challenge will be being able to get everything lined up. It sounds so easy to do, but it's a daunting task. If you remember a couple years back when we lost Myles Burnsides, we had Al (Aldwin Foster-Rettig) and Marcus (Martin). Those guys were extremely talented, but mentally they didn't have the same make-up as what Myles did.
It's kind of a similar situation. Athletically, we're going to be great. It's going to be mentally can they handle all the checks we're going to throw at them and get us lined up."
One potential new starter at safety is Bryce Enyard, the 2011 MIAA Freshman of the Year. He was forced to leave Northwest last year because of grade issues, but is back with the Bearcats this spring.
Wright calls him an "instinctual player" and says athletically he looks as good as ever.
Page 3 of 3 - Others vying to start at safety are Travis Manning, Alex Taylor, Jared Fox, Dylan Chadwick and Carson Klocko.
Manning is easily the most experienced of the bunch, having started or played in every game but one the last two seasons.
"It's a dogfight," said Wright.
That's not so much the case at corner where twin brothers Brandon Dixon and Brian Dixon have a pretty firm hold on the starting jobs.
Both intercepted five passes in their debut seasons with Northwest and are already generating NFL interest.