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Lions’ Defensive Pre-game Preview: Hamilton’s off-season words become defense’s identity–both under fire against versatile Devils’ QB

September 17, 2009

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The Lions' defense, breaking down after today's walk-thru in preparation of perennial MAC rival, FDU-Florham

Every off-season it’s the same. Players train, and coaches plan.

There’s surely the likelihood of a disconnect during time away from school, one between the men employed to roam the sidelines and those yearning to compete between them. It’s not a loss of understanding between the two parties, but a mere side-effect of the physical distance inevitably spawned in the wake of summer–the students’ much-needed vacation from the classroom.

Not from the gridiron.

This summer, like the other 32 since he began his tenure, head coach Eric Hamilton mailed his players a letter, a reminder of the team’s ultimate goals–ones for which they’re toiling so restlessly now to enjoy later. Atop every letter to every player, like the other nine since the quote’s inception, reads a sentence-long mission statement that sets the tone for the words–and the coming season’s obstacles–that follow.

THE STRENGTH OF THE LION IS PRIDE.

BUT THE STRENGTH OF THE PRIDE IS THE LION.

Call it what you will–a single-serving of instant cliche, packaged only as long as it took for its two authors to recognize the duality of “pride” and its applicability to the school’s mascot. Or, call it an instant mantra–but one not spoken or sung, simply because it doesn’t need to be.

It’s embodied in every player–every day, every year.

“In essence, it’s all for one, one for all,” Hamilton said of his inference of the words’ meaning, inspired by Jim Valvano’s timeless farewell/dare-to-be-great rouse during the 1993 ESPY Awards. “At a program like The College of New Jersey, we have to rely on each other, we have to play as a team to get it done and win football games. That’s the best short answer.”

Pass judgment as you’d like, but do your opinion’s credibility the favor of waiting until after the Lions’ defense takes the field against Fairleigh Dickinson University, led by its army-of-one, dual-threat quarterback Bill Winters.

Winters style of play, likely to be showcased on every last Devils’ offensive down, demands discipline of its opposition. Capable of dicing a defensive secondary with his arm (23/39, 240 yds, 3 TDs last week vs. Alfred University) or gashing its front-seven with his legs (19 rush, 118 yds, TD in same game) his unequivocal talent leaves a defense little room for error, if any at all. Screw up, and he’ll make you pay.

And according to the defense–one that’s self-conditioned for this kind of test–that won’t be a problem.

“It’s always a team effort no matter who the opponent is,” linebacker Joe Spahn said before this evening’s 5:00pm walk-through. “Even if, say a team has a few receivers than the average team does, it’s really not just the DBs responsibility for that. We’re going to incorporate a game plan where everyone’s gonna be involved. We’ll go from there and make any corrections we have to. As a team.”

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LB Joe Spahn (mid-right), alongside LB Dan DeCongelio (mid-left) and DE Craig Meyer (left)

According to Spahn, along with about every other notable face in the Lions’ defensive huddle, this season’s ‘team’ doesn’t particularly resonate with the feel of a competitive football program. It’s a group of friends, a family that occasionally wears helmets, shoulder pads and Adidas-sponsored jerseys during collegiate competition on weekends.

“Ever since camp started, its been there,” Spahn said, noting the importance of ‘it’ to this year’s TCNJ football squad. “It’s huge. The team camaraderie is amazing, on and off the field. I think to be a successful team you need that. And we have it.”

Defensive end and team co-captain Craig Meyer echoed his fellow senior’s perception of this 2009 Lions–one so drastically different from that of a year ago, a 2008 roster chock-full of 100-or-so individuals, coincidentally dressing alike on game day.

“We just gel,” he said after practice, walking toward his family’s ’08 Nissan Murano. “I feel good about it. We’re all boys on the field, but off the field as well. I think that makes a difference when you’re all so close.”

Their coach says he notices, too.

“The guys that are out here are 100% committed. There’s no agendas anymore,” second-year defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said after today’s light workout. “They realize that by staying together and playing for each other that they’re going to win ball games, rather than look around and ‘wax-poetic’ point fingers—doesn’t get the job done.”

Whether it stems from the unit’s recent ambiance of unity, or their hard-nosed grit, the defense’s confidence against this week’s opponent doesn’t go as unspoken as its aura of togetherness.

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Safeties Matt Kreider (left) and Shawn Brown (right) between plays during this evening's pre-game walk-thru

Nor is it as warm.

“If we play aggressive and play like we know we can, we can dominate this team,” defensive back Justin Beres said, respectfully noting his adversary’s baller-esque game, but reiterating his squad’s eagerness to face it. “That quarterback is probably the biggest part of their offense. If he gets loose he can do some big things against us. Our defense just needs to step up and play how we play. I’m hoping we can shut this team out. I want a shutout tomorrow.”

Beres says he thinks this defense is capable of reproducing its half of the Lions’ commanding 53-7 performance from 2007–one indistinguishably dissimilar from a lousy 2008 outing that surrendered 415 yards of total offense and six TDs–and those were just to Winters. He says when they do it–which he’s sure they will–they’ll do it from believing within.

“We need to play with confidence in order to be dominant tomorrow,” he said via text message, frantic to emphasize the source of what described as an unshakable force. One composed of 11 Lions, playing as one.

One pride.

Whether you buy into Hamilton’s words (co-authored by Frank Cooper, former assistant coach to both of the school’s basketball programs, now the Director of Records and Registration) or his team’s voice, tomorrow night’s test will try validity of each.

And this defense’s ability to stop Dickinson’s human-highlight reel.

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