Football: Just 30 years old, new UL DC Toney seeks forward steps
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 10, 2020
Although just 30 years old, he comes with a long list of Ragin’ Cajuns now under his command who welcomed his promotion with open arms and countless words of respect.
So for young Patrick Toney, whose UL defense will be tested from the get-go in its 2020 season opener Saturday morning at No. 25 Iowa State, it wasn’t so much about having to win anyone over.
Rather, it’s been all about picking up where the Cajuns left off, adding a wrinkle or two and simply making sure the ship keeps sailing.
“I’m taking over as the defensive coordinator,” Toney, who was tapped after Ron Roberts left for the same post at Baylor earlier this year, said before preseason camp opened in early August, “but my main task is just to improve on what we’ve done.
“Ultimately football comes down to getting off blocks on defense, tackling, taking the football away and playing with effort. That’s my goal, right?
“We’re gonna improve on what we’ve improved on here already,” Toney added, “and continue to advance in those areas and finds ways to get better.”
Defensive improvement, as it happens, is what it’s been all about on that side of the ball ever since former Arizona State and Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier – youthful in his own right at just 41 years old now – was hired to coach the Cajuns prior to 2018 season.
In 2017 when UL finished 5-7, head coach Mark Hudspeth was fired – and former Southeastern Louisiana head coach Mike Lucas, now in his second stint at DC at FCS Northwestern State, was the defensive coordinator – the Cajuns allowed 40.0 points and 492.7 yards per game.
In 2018, the first at UL for Roberts, another former Southeastern Louisiana head coach, the 7-7 Cajuns allowed 34.2 points and 435.9 yards.
The huge jump of improvement came in 2019, when the Cajuns went 11-3 while allowing only 19.71 points – lowest in the Sun Belt Conference – and 371.8 yards per game.
No wonder Napier decided to stay in-house when he elevated Roberts protégé Toney from safeties coach and tacked on DC duties.
A former safeties coach at Texas-San Antonio from 2016-17 and secondary coach at Sam Houston State in 2015, Toney was a defensive assistant working with the secondary in 2012 and ’13 at Southeastern Louisiana before Roberts – a 30-year coaching veteran who has been in the business as long as Toney has been alive – promoted him to safeties coach and special teams coordinator of the Lions in 2014.
“The big thing we wanted to do was … continue with the same schematics, same concepts on defense, kind of continue that momentum,” said Napier, who was just 29 when in 2009 he became the youngest coordinator in the country and the youngest in Clemson history. “(We) got a great foundation built.”
So Napier turned the keys over to Toney, a native of Poway, California, who got his start as an assistant in the California high school and juco ranks – he was defensive line coach at Fallbrook High in 2008, receivers coach at Palomar College in 2009 and offensive coordinator at La Costa Canyon High for two seasons after that – before heading to SLU, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in 2013.
Napier calls him “one of the bright up-and-comers in our profession.”
“(He) certainly (is) a guy that commands respect because of his work ethic, his attention to detail and, simply put, his knowledge,” the Cajuns coach said.
“And I think our players, obviously – when they saw that move, they were excited for Coach P.T.”
'HE'S VERY YOUNG, BUT HE'S VERY SMART'
They certainly were.
“We all trust Coach Toney as the new defensive coordinator. I believe in Coach Toney 100 percent,” Will inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner said in the spring. “He’s very young, but he’s very smart, and he’s very wise and knowledgeable of the game.”
“With Coach Toney, I mean, things, they’re great. It’s not too much difference scheme-wise that we’re doing different than last year; the energy is just different.” Mike linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill added in August. “It’s a great environment, having him as the DC. You know, he’s just letting us go out there and play.”
Gardner said that last season, even though Toney wasn’t his position coach, he often picked his brain.
“I understand that he understands the game,” the linebacker said, “and I just wanted to know more of the game, so meeting with him just made me more sure of this year when he got the defensive coordinator’s job.”
Starting outside linebacker/standup defensive end Joe Dillon called Toney “a perfect coach.”
“I love him to death,” Dillon said. “Now I’m just ready to play for him, play under him.”
Starting cornerback Eric Garror said that when UL’s defense worked against the Cajun offense during preseason camp and practices last month it was like Toney was “competing with Coach Napier, and I like that.”
“Coach Toney … he knows what’s going on before the play even happens,” starting defensive back Percy Butler said.
Toney is Butler’s position coach at safety.
“Last year … he really was on the sideline, screaming at us what route the receiver’s fixin’ to run – like, before they even run it,” Butler said. “The receiver’s looking to the sideline like, ‘He must got our playbook.’
“He really knows everything the offense is fixin’ to do based off of their formation, so I feel like that’s really going to help us.”
'STILL THE SAME DEFENSE'
The transition from Roberts to Toney, however, was made terrifically tougher when UL lost 12 of its spring practices to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Further complicating matters, Roberts took UL outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Matthew Powledge with him to Baylor prior to the start of spring ball.
So Napier and Toney hired former UL defensive graduate assistant Austin Armstrong, who spent last season as a quality control assistant at Georgia, to coach inside linebackers, the position group Roberts previously coached for the Cajuns.
They also tapped Mike Giuliani, a former Arkansas quality control assistant and ex-defensive preparation staffer for the NFL’s New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, to coach outside linebackers as a grad assistant.
Yet Toney was not fazed by all the change and coronavirus-related chaos.
He maintained calm by focusing only on controlling what he can control, and not worrying about the rest.
“When it comes to coverages and fronts, I can do that,” Toney said. “Then I just let the experts work with the quarantine, the COVID and all that.
“There’s been some learning on the fly,” he added, “but we’re fortunate to have a great staff here, a lot of guys to lean on.”
But it starts at the top, which is fine by Toney, who said being a defensive coordinator is “something I worked my whole career for.”
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He has his shot now.
But just because Toney does not mean he will change a lot with the UL defense, which is known for its multiple looks, penchant for playing a nickel back in certain situations and willingness to bring rushers – often disguised – off the edge.
“It’s still the same deal – same scheme, same everything,” Dillon said the day before camp opened.
“We’ve just got to get better at everybody knowing what to do, everybody being on the same page. But that’s gonna come with time, so I’m not really worried about that. (It’s about) just us sticking together through this whole process.”
Linebacker Gardner did concede that Toney “has his little touches on the defense … and we’re getting adjusted to it.”
He puts a high emphasis, inside linebacker Jourdan Quibodeaux said, on winning “1-on-1” battles within the context of an 11-man defense.
But most of the Cajuns insistent not much at all is too different, from the language on play calls to the scheme packages UL has installed.
“It’s still the same,” defensive end/outside linebacker Andre Jones said one day last month. “Ain’t nothing changed. Keep it plain Jane.”
“We’re still the same defense,” defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill added. “We’re still the same tenacious monsters we had last year, and we’re just gonna keep moving forward.”
THE NEXT STEP
Dillon does feel, though, that there is more to be squeezed from the Cajun defense.
“There’s always room to improve,” he said.
“Weren’t none of us perfect last year. So any little thing possible that we feel like we can get better at it we need to attack it, and that’s gonna be crazy once we do.”
But tor Toney – who loses key contributors including leading tackler Jacques Boudreaux at inside linebacker, defensive lineman Bennie Higgins, Michael Jacquet III at cornerback, Terik Miller at the nickel spot and Deuce Wallace at safety – it starts with an if-it-ain’t-broke approach.
At this point, at least, the focus really is more about making a good thing better.
Like most young people, his aspirations are high and it seems perfectly reasonably to shoot for the moon.
Toney wants to continue seeing Cajuns getting behind the line of scrimmage to force things.
“I think we do do a good job of is creating rushes with different pressures and different looks to be able to affect the quarterback,” he said.
But Toney said he does want his players’ “football intelligence” to be “a little bit higher.”
“Not to say it was bad,” he said, “but it can always get better.”
Toney also said he wants his defense to “play even better situational football,” on third down and from the red zone, to the gold zone to the goal line.
But with continuity on their side, the d-coordinator added, “They’re not having to learn ‘What do I do on this call?’”
“They know that,” Toney said. “So what’s the next step?
“Let’s get better at knowing what the offense is doing, let’s get better at understanding the situation, the down and distance, the field position, the time on the clock.
“Hopefully,” he added, “that’s my mark: We just continue to improve and taking steps forward.”