Football: Lucas - 'We want to be the No. 1 swarm defense'
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Aug. 31, 2017
It’s all about running to the football.
“We want to be the No. 1 swarm defense in America,” said Lucas, head coach at Southeastern Louisiana — which visits UL for both teams’ season-opener — from 2007-11.
“We define ‘swarm’ by ‘you’re either in on the tackle, or you’re sprinting full speed to the tackle.’”
Measuring one’s swarminess — swarmability? swarm-like tendencies? swarming productivity? — is more subjective than statistical.
Sure, turnovers gained can be counted.
By that calculation, BYU had the nation’s swarmiest 2016 defense with 2.5 takeaways per game. UL, by contrast, was 82nd among 128 at 1.4.
Beyond the numbers, though, swarm can be seen, sensed and, if executed properly, overwhelming.
“For us to be a great swarm defense — not only does that mean we have to play with great effort, we’ve got to get the ball out,” UL coach Mark Hudspeth said.
“We’ve got to create some turnovers for the offense, and create a short field. That will play a factor in scoring points.”
What makes the Cajuns think they can swarm so well?
“We’ve got good team speed,” Hudspeth said.
That includes the Cajuns’ defensive ends — namely Joe Dillion, a USA Today Freshman All-American last season, along with Trev Miller and Jarvis Jeffries.
“I don’t know a defensive end who runs faster than Joe Dillon,” Hudspeth said.
But it doesn’t stop there.
It can’t, senior safety Tracy Walker suggested.
“Every guy on the defense, all 11, they’re gonna run to the ball 110 percent,” Walker said.
“The objective is to run to the ball full-speed, and if you’re not making the tackle you’re swarming. … Wherever the ball is, we find ball, kill ball.”
Building a defense capable of that started for Lucas early last season, when then-Cajuns defensive coordinator Melvin Smith was fired after a 2016-opening loss to Boise State and the then-UL linebackers coach was named his interim replacement.
Impressed with how he installed his defense on the fly, Hudspeth gave Lucas the job full-time shortly before UL’s New Orleans Bowl loss to Southern Mississippi.
Now, with the benefit of a full offseason under Lucas, UL’s defense feels it is capable of things this year it wasn’t in 2016.
“He’s able to teach us … from the ground level things we couldn’t work on last season because it was a quick transition,” senior linebacker T.J. Posey said.
“That,” Walker added, “gave a lot of time to study the defense, and really know what’s going on.”
The Cajuns made the best of last season’s situation, finishing 23rd nationally in run defense and 43rd in total defense at 379.1 yards per game allowed.
But they simply couldn’t do all they wanted.
“Last year we were going in game-by-game trying to … install the defense, which is very difficult,” Walker said.
“A lot of the young guys last year, they weren’t able to catch up. Now everybody knows what’s going on. Everybody knows the system.”
Hudspeth has taken notice.
“Coach Lucas had only days to put in his defense last year,” he said.
“Now he’s had a full offseason … to put all of the wrinkles in, all of the rest of the bells and whistles, and to continue developing his players the way he wants to develop them.”
What will that allow?
“We definitely have lot of new things we’re going to be doing,” Walker said.
It starts up front, where in addition to the defensive ends Hudspeth brags on Taboris Lee, Kevon Perry and LaDarrius Kidd inside on the line.
“You’ve got to be a team that can stop the run first to be successful, and control the pass,” he said.
“Our front seven, especially our defensive line: That is the strength of our team.”
Linebacker play is a well-chronicled concern, with top-two tacklers Tre’maine Lightfoot and Otha Peters both done.
But safeties Walker and Travis Crawford are long-time starters and cornerbacks Damar’ren Mitchell, Levarious Varnado and Lorenzo Cryer are billed as sound even without starting experience at the position.
“You’ll see us play a lot of man coverage,” Lucas said, “because we’ve got good people in the back end.”
But for Lucas — who has had stints as defensive coordinator at Southland Conference-schools Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston State and Northwestern State — up-front play is critical.
Posey describes him as “an attacking coach” who “likes to get after people.”
“We’re an attack front,” Lucas said. “We’re blitzing. We’re bringing people from all over the place.
“You saw that at the end of last season. We’re bringing corners, we’re bringing safeties. The guys like that. They like to play that way.”
Although it plays out of a 4-3 base, UL’s defense was — and still is — quite multiple.
Last season, in fact, Lucas said UL “actually played 60.5 percent of the time in a three-man front.”
Much depends on down-and-distance.
Dillon provides the flexibility from his Buck position, able to drop and play more like a linebacker or — like he did a lot before opponents started double-teaming last season, freeing up others on the Cajun line — rush off the edge as a stand-up defensive end.
“We’re not going to sit back and wait on anybody,” Lucas said.
“We’ve got to get tackles for losses, we’ve got to put people behind the sticks — get ’em in second-and-long, third-and-long.”
With the early coordinator switch, though, it took time to get there.
Lucas first had to introduce his ways to the entire defense — not just the linebackers who already knew him.
He also made key personnel moves, moving Walker from what became Dillon’s spot back to his usual safety position, starting Lightfoot after Trey Granier got hurt and starting then-true freshman Mitchell at UL’s Slash position.
“There was a change of approach, change of mentality in things we wanted to do defensively,” Lucas said.
“And I think there was a time there when I had to win their respect as a coordinator, and I think I did that.
“You know,” he added, “we kind of turned that thing around.”
Missing, though, were more turnovers gained.
UL had only 10 interceptions and eight fumbles recoveries last year.
“We’d leave plays out, interceptions and stuff,” Walker said, “because we weren’t in the right assignments or right gaps.”
The Cajuns also weren’t always running to the ball like they should, allowing opposing offenses to more easily clean up their mistakes.
It’s why Lucas has the aspiration he does now.
“Swarm,” Walker said.
“That’s the whole key thing about swarming. If you have all 11 running to the ball, the ball typically is going to come out.”