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Bounds limitless for TCNJ defense–Hamilton: They finally get it

November 6, 2009

Last Saturday—a week removed from his defense’s most outstanding performance to date—Ryan Flannery gazed into nothingness, minutes after what seemed like all that progress’ deconstruction. He spoke out in heated frustration, saying about as much.

The unit’s most recent outing might not have expanded construction on the monument of success erected during a 16-13 loss against Montclair State University. But even if it seemed like the group had resorted to its old ways—allowing 300+ yards of SUNY-Cortland offense—it just wouldn’t be possible for 60 minutes to erase countless hours of building, resulting in this foundation.

It can’t be quantified—certainly not by NCAA standards, like the ones that rank TCNJ’s among other run-of-the-mill defenses in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (ranked no higher than 6th in any statistical category). But it’s there nonetheless, the earliest sprouts of seeds planted way back in August, finally starting to germinate.

What is it, besides that X-factor swag—a quality collectively offered by each player’s colorful personality and ostensible chip on their shoulders? It is understanding.

And now that they’ve got it, it’s not going anywhere.

It can’t.

“Compared to the beginning of the year it’s night and day,” free safety Matt Kreider said before Friday’s walk through. “…Starting then, working until now, we’re a completely different team. I know it seems like we may have taken a step back last week…but I still see us improving.”

Kreider, now a junior, said he was well-versed in specificities immediately after the team broke camp—the Xes and Os of the scheme. But even so, he hadn’t quite put it all together.

“In Week One, I feel like I had the knowledge to regurgitate it to you—like how when you cram for a test. I could tell you everything, but I couldn’t use it functionally.”

Becoming the team’s leading tackler by Week Nine, Kreider spoke retrospectively, remembering on experiences of his and everyone else’s inexperience. But looking around now, he’s begun to notice an overwhelming grasp of what he’s asked, immediately processing the order and deducing the philosophy behind it.

“Now I feel like I know what everyone’s doing, why they’re doing it. And I feel like more and more players on our defense are at that point now. Before you’re in position and you don’t know what the hell’s going on. Now it’s starting to click.”

It’s taken a while, and from time to time, they’ve taken a beating while the matter sorted itself out.

Twice has the Lions’ defense forfeited opponent yards totals in excess of 500 yards (Morrisville St., Brockport). Its across-the-ball adversaries have garnered 30 points in all but two of the unit’s appearances—one being Kean’s 28 points in Week 5. Perhaps worst of all is the ravaging toll fate has taken over the course of this trying 2009 season, sending seven frequent starters to the sideline for varying severities of injury and stretches of time (Beres, DeCongelio, Flannery, Goreczny, Hadduch, Jones, Spahn).

Some might even argue that it’s greatest misfortunes have helped incubate it’s achievements.

“The silver lining of a lot of guys being hurt is it gives an opportunity to a lot of different guys to get playing time,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said over the phone, earlier in the week.

“From that standpoint we’d like to think that no matter who we put in, he’s got a grasp of what he’s doing and can do the job for us.”

Hiccups aside—those within and beyond control—there’s no doubt that the scheme has finally nestled in, taking residence in players’ unconsciousness thought processes. And now that it’s internalized, a sixth-sense since it’s become second-nature, players say it allows them to…well…just play the game.

“From the beginning, I feel like we were thinking too much out there,” Flannery said after Friday’s light workout.

“Young guys stepped up and started understanding the scheme. We’re doing more reacting than thinking. That’s always good—instead of being a step slower.”

And, according to one of those afore mentioned youngsters—whose personal success has fortified the Lions’ much-maligned second-level—that ability to allow innate impulses dictate his play has been a big reason why.

“Now it’s just pretty much being there and making the play. The physical part’s done. It’s more mentally. Just making sure I’m where I’m supposed to be on every play. …I feel confident. I pretty much know everything I’m doing.”

Whether they’ve reached this alleged breakthrough remains unknown, a secret locked in the inner-most workings of each player’s mind. Whatever the case may be, coaches say the recently completed work-in-progress is good enough, a pleasure to watch in their mind.

“It’s just encouraging to look at it from a staff perspective,” Hamilton said, all too proud of his players’ development.

“Early in the season, when we were struggling, it looked like kids were just confused a lot of different times. … But our best games have come later in the season. That’s the positive we’re taking out of it. We’re on the rise and that’s all you can ask for.”

Hamilton said he had no complaints, but TCNJ’s second-year defensive play-caller said he knows what he’d wish for, should he happen to trip on a magic lamp before the season—and his time with this group—comes to an end.

“When all of a sudden it clicks, and things are going well … you say, ‘Damn it.

“‘I wish we had five or six more weeks to really start having some fun.’”

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