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Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: Young Lions’ DBs appear finished with growing pains, poised to unleash anticipated potential vs. Morrisville State

September 24, 2009

In a state as diverse as New Jersey–a metropolitan melting pot of cultures, personalities and skill sets behind a steering wheel–there seems to be a place for just about everything.

Take 7s and 11s for example. Should the dots etched in red cubes read those two magical (often lucrative) digits in Atlantic City, upon the die’s final roll atop a craps table, the roller’s night tends to assume the feel of commercials depicting the coastal tourist concourse’s renowned nightlife–rather than the disgruntled attitudes of Donald Trump’s slighted casino workers.

But similar to the culture-clash that a North Jersey fist-pumper runs into down in rural Southern Jersey farmlands, great fits in the Garden State aren’t absolute.

Apply those figures to Trenton–say, toward the TCNJ football team’s defensive rankings–and the once-Sinatra-laden ambiance assumes a much more melancholy tone.

Despite the team’s staggering success–exploding out of the gate to an unanticipated 2-0 start–the Lions’ D has stumbled early in 2009. It’s unimpeded free fall in the conference’s defensive rankings finally let up at week’s end–once it had abruptly crashed into rock-bottom.

After it’s second performance versus FDU-Florham, the defense’s play earned it a humble 7th place in the conference in scoring defense (allowed 29.5 ppg) and opponent pass efficiency (quarterbacks average 124.94 QB rating).

And those stats were the good ones.

More resembling a doormat than a “Steel Curtain,” the squad’s apparently lackluster debut and second act scrape the abyss of a  number of the conference’s other measuring rods–8th in total defense (allowed 423.5 ypg) and 9th in pass defense (287.5 pass ypg).

But let’s keep things in perspective. After all, they’re on the field a lot.

Of all the NJAC’s competitors, only The College at Brockport (2-0) and Morrisville State College (0-3) have fielded more defensive snaps than the Lions (179, 156, 145, respectively). And neither team has seen its offense excel so far in 2009–at least not among the NCAA’s top-five.

While the Mustangs of Morrisville State haven’t quite found an identity–or the end zone for that matter (10th in NJAC in scoring offense)–leaving its defense out to dry, The College at Brockport’s offense hasn’t quite put its counterparts under the kind of duress imposed upon the Lions (average margin of victory 4 pts; TCNJ beat opponents by 23 ppg).

Though he’s not thrilled about the dicing that’s gone on against his secondary, defensive backs coach Andy Larkin maintains a positive outlook, in lieu of the circumstances.

“When our offense is clicking on all cylinders like they are and we’re out to some pretty hefty leads, teams have to be a little more one-dimensional,” said Larkin, co-captain of the 2007 Lions’ NJAC c0-Championship team.

After Thursday’s practice, Larkin spoke with optimism, but reluctance to conjure up excuses for his group’s shortcomings.

“Needless to say, if [opponents] going to be throwing the ball 45-50 times a game, we’re going to have to step up and meet the challenge.”

Of all the groups under fire when the offense…well..does what it does, the brunt of the heat brewed by the Lions’ three-pronged arsenal gets focused on the team’s defensive backs–who’ve come a long way since August’s training camp.

Performing in the absence of All-NJAC performer and co-captain Ryan Flannery–who’s bum ankle has limited his action to pacing the sidelines offering mid-game corrections, rather than mid-play coverage–the void has thrust a number of the team’s works-in-progress into demanding prominent roles.

“Dealing with ‘Flea’s’ injury, we’ve asked guys to step up and take leadership roles,” said Larkin, who knows a thing or two about ball-hawking in the defensive secondary (2007 Lions ranked 1st in NJAC scoring defense, opponent 3rd-dn conv., INTs, sacks; 2nd in total defense, opponent QB rating).

“We’ve gotten that so far.”

Among the preseason’s squires–ones prematurely dubbed to knighthood–include free safeties Matt Kreider and Phil Gatti. Both players have impressed their defense’s ailing Lion King thus far.

“I think he’s made tremendous strides,” Flannery said, attesting to the progress he’s seen from the junior from Delran High. “When I went down, he’s stepped up. He reminds me of myself out there. He’s making calls, making checks. He’s just doing a good job.”

Evidenced by his reservedness during today’s post-workout interviews, Flannery expects much of the same from Gatti–once he breaks in his vocal cords.

“Gatti’s coming around also. He just needs to speak up a little bit more. Other than that he’s been making good plays on the ball.”

Kreider described what, for him, has been a turbulent learning curve.

“Last year, I only got reps on third down, and it was kind of a good basis,” he said. “This year I got stuck into the starting role. The first game was a good learning experience, but every day, every practice I’m making one step closer to being more comfortable back there.”

As if a nostalgic wave crashed over the ten foot square of young Lion DBs, Kreider’s heightened collectiveness as the season progresses reminds him of “the good ‘ol days.”

“All the checks are coming easier and as we go on it makes me feel like I was in high school, when I knew exactly what I was doing all the time.”

When he finally spoke, Gatti reciprocated the feeling.

“Playing out there just reminds me of high school. Especially when there’s a lot of people out there. It’s exciting.”

Among the more wonted performers prowling the Lions’ defensive backfield, the often fulfilling walk out under the Friday night lights doesn’t quite do it for strong safety Shawn Brown–at least not initially.

“It’s exciting, man. I get to go out there and hit somebody.”

The three players admitted that the start of the 2009 season hasn’t yielded the instant-success enjoyed by Chris James, and his multitude of offensive toys. But they’re leaning on each other to get better. And–dare they say it–having some fun in the meantime.

“The first two games we played a very individual game,” he said, wiping away the smiles cracked by off-the-record jokes the group exchanged just moments before. “We didn’t talk enough. But now we’re starting to work off each other, feed off each other. As we get better, as we communicate more that’s when we become a better defense. When everyone’s on the same page, when we can trust each other—that’s when you can click and you play as one.”

On the record though, Kreider couldn’t resist setting the standard for the team’s next performance, when the team welcomes Morrisville State to Lions’ Stadium this Saturday.

“We’re gonna get some picks this weekend.”

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