By ANDY WOLF
It’s been a work in progress.
And progress certainly has been made defensively for the University of Findlay football team.
“I saw a lot of improvement,” UF coach Rob Keys said of last season. “I saw them get better. I saw them get better with age as the games went on and improve on lot of aspects.”
And though, ultimately, the Oilers went 6-5 in both seasons with Jason Makrinos as defensive coordinator, the 2015 defense left plenty of areas to improve upon.
For starters, the Oilers allowed 37.6 points per game with at least 30 given up in every game but one. Allowing an average of 234 rushing yards per game wasn’t going to cut it again, either.
There was plenty of reasons to believe UF would do better as their top 15 tacklers returned in 2016.
Improve they did. The nature of Findlay’s games were far more low-scoring.
An opponents’ offense only topped 30 points five times but the defense allowed that many just three times — all in the first half of the season — in surrendering 26.0 per game, the best mark in the Rob Keys era.
The run defense bettered itself to a respectable 149.5 yards per game.
Three key starters in Myles Alexander, Anthony Linnear and Brad Fenton graduated from a unit seeking to be even better in 2017.
“I think we had a strong defensive unit last year,” junior defensive back Chewy Chukwuneke said. “We had senior leadership at linebacker (Alexander, Linnear) which definitely helped. We had good play on all levels, but this year we’re trying to take it to another level.”
Chukwuneke was one of six freshmen starting on defense by the end of 2015. Not just in terms of points and yardage, the Oilers were also creating more negative plays last year.
The defense had four more sacks, one more interception, forced four more fumbles and recorded 19 more tackles for loss in 2016 than the previous season.
“We want to get the football,” said Chukwuneke, a second-team all league selection in 2016. “That’s been our main focus in camp, taking the football away from the offense. We weren’t satisfied with our numbers in those categories last year.”
Chukwuneke said the defense has a daily quota to meet in practice to boost those numbers. A failure to reach it results in more up-downs.
“We also punch a football that sits right in the beginning of our meetings,” senior defensive back Aaron Ivory said. “We check in and check out (that way) to remind us that we want to take the ball.”
The 2017 Oilers get two high-powered offenses out of the gate in Tiffin and Ferris State. Both are now nonleague foes with UF’s switch to the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
“From the 2015 season to the 2016 season, we improved with our communication on defense because we were young when we first started playing,” Ivory said. “We were thrown into the fire.”
The defense will miss Alexander’s team-leading 101 tackles, 101/2 for loss, and Fenton’s 71/2 TFLs.
Meanwhile, young playmakers are blossoming.
True freshman Isaac Miles (47 tackles) matched Linnear’s 51/2 stops for loss. Linnear also had 54 tackles.
Miles got his first start in Week 4 against Lake Erie. Things clicked soon after as he made at least five tackles in each of the next six games.
“Probably after about the first start; I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Miles said. “But over time, I picked it up and started doing what was asked of me. I could see things better because of the coaching, applying the coaching.”
Fellow true freshman Justin Ellis didn’t see as much field time but was just as productive with a team-high 51/2 sacks.
He wasn’t an every-down player but a raw, athletic player at 6-foot-1, 265 pounds who knew how to get to the quarterback.
“When I came in, it’s not about being timid and stuff like that because even though you’re a freshman you still want to do stuff for the team,” Ellis said. “I wanted to make an impact. That was one of the reasons.”
Keys envisions Ellis having an even larger role among already-seasoned defensive linemen Ashton Elmore, Cyle Skidmore, Grant Kinsinger (Liberty-Benton) and A.C. Limes. Each had multiple stops behind the line of scrimmage.
The secondary is now full of upperclassmen as juniors Chukwuneke (55 tackles), Francis Cutchember (76) and Rhon Houston (35) plus Ivory (35) each had multiple pass breakups.
True freshman Romaeo Whitlow added 19 tackles and a pick.
“Regardless of what pieces or players are out there, we’re always looking to play to a standard,” Keys said of the defense over the years. “Defensively, we had not played to those standards a lot of those times. There’s some times where we’ve given up some big yards and big points.
“The only way to improve that is to develop your players … and recruit better and make sure you get the right guys and also create depth.
“The defensive staff, this is now season three for them. They have done a really good job sticking to their program and their beliefs and their philosophy and sticking to that process. I’m hoping they put out a pretty good product in 2017.”
Football: An improved defense looks to get even better
By ANDY WOLF