College Football

Countdown to kickoff: Wildcats' defense develops into hard-hitting force

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 19, 2020 12:10 am Updated: Sep. 19, 2020 2:35 am

CANTON, Mo. -- Saturday afternoons aren't the time for the members of the Culver-Stockton College football team's defense to get awestruck by what the Wildcats' offense is doing.

"We have to be concerned with the offense we're trying to stop," senior linebacker Pat Robinson said.

Besides, the defenders are keenly aware of what the C-SC offense can do.

"Our offense is very up-tempo. They run a lot of plays to try to confuse you," Robinson said. "When we go against other offenses that try to do that same thing, they're not as fast as what we see in practice."

It's the perfect primer to have the Wildcats ready to face anything.

It's turning an oft forgotten unit into formidable crew.

Four years removed from ranking as the worst defense in the NAIA in back-to-back seasons, the Wildcats open the season with an honest belief they can be among the best defenses in the nation this time around. Having all 11 starters back helps, but so does their trajectory.

Over the last three seasons, the Wildcats have gone from 81st in the nation in total defense (490 yards allowed per game) to 36th in 2018 (362.3 yards per game) to ninth last season (279.6 yards per game).

"Ever since freshman year, we've had those thoughts, hopes, expectations for ourselves," senior linebacker Dalton Huffman said. "Everyone is now just seeing what we've been seeing and thinking since we were freshmen."

It's because the Wildcats have amassed playmakers at every level.

Three seniors -- defensive end Jamal Beaty, safety Stephen Benson and Robinson -- were first-team All-Heart of America Athletic Conference North Division selections a year ago. Huffman was one of four second-team all-conference selections that return.

This group was responsible for 18 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles, 34 sacks and two defensive touchdowns.

"We've got people who can hit, people looking to get a turnover every single play," Huffman said. "We've got ballhawks in the secondary, studs in the linebacking corps, a defensive line that are monsters. Everybody got bigger, faster, stronger, better this year. And everybody returns."

They all fill a need and exemplify the kind of player Sallay and his defensive coaches want.

"We care way more about how fast you move than how big you are," Sallay said. "Size isn't the biggest thing for us. We want guys who are willing to work hard to get to the ball every single time. Once they get to the ball, they're willing to be violent."

They are complementary pieces as well.

"Our defense is super talented," Sallay said. "We have multiple guys who can make plays at different levels of our defense. When you have that, if the linebackers aren't playing great today, the defensive line really is or the defensive backs really are. We can make up for things."

It means others will be watching to see what the defense does, no longer waiting just to watch the offense.

"Teams are aiming to be beat us now," Robinson said.