If you take of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.
Anyone that has worked with young people over a long period of time knows that this concept is sometimes hard to grasp. So when Stevenson coach Ed Hottle met with his seniors at the start of training camp to set team goals for this season, he was especially pleased that “win a conference championship and go to the (NCAA) playoffs,” was not on the top of the list.
“When we went through the list of things we wanted to accomplish, conference championship was the last thing on the list,” Hottle said. “I thought that was unique. Goal No. 1 was ‘finish everything.’ ”
The Mustangs had high hopes in 2015 but lost by three in the final seconds to Delaware Valley and threw an interception in Albright territory late in a four-point loss. They finished 9-2 and won a postseason bowl game for the second straight season.
On Saturday, the sixth-year program has the chance to finish their quest for a Middle Atlantic Conference championship when it hosts Wilkes. With a 7-0 MAC record and victories over their closest contenders Albright, Delaware Valley and Widener, the Mustangs can clinch at least a share of the MAC and the sixth-year program’s first trip to the NCAA playoffs.
Hottle feels maturity is the key difference between this year’s Mustangs and the 2015 version which includes many of the same parts.
“There’s an expectation of success, not just the hope of success. They’ve realized what they’re capable of. It’s a mature football team from a game preparation and practice prospective. We don’t have to coach effort.
“When you start a program from nothing, you have to coach everything. You have coach them to practice hard, to study hard, to lift hard, to become college football players. To successful on Saturday, to have to be successful on the other 355 days of the year.”
Something that hasn’t changed from last year is one of the most productive secondaries in the history of D-III football. In 2015, they keyed a unit that forced 40 takeaways and 29 interceptions. Both were tops in the division for a team that was plus-1.91 in turnover margin, also a D-III best.
This season, they’ve picked off 19 passes (second in nation) and rank fourth in the pass efficiency defense. Add five defensive touchdowns (after three in 2015) and a plus-1.63 turnover margin and you have one of the most impressive two-year resume for any unit around.
What’s the secret to success?
Hottle credits a combination of things, starting with defensive coordinator and position coach Dustin Johnson. Johnson was of the most competitive and explosive players you’d see when he quarterbacked Salisbury back in the early 2000’s.
“He’s a competitor and he’s instilled that in that in entire group. Every down is an opportunity to compete,” said Hottle of Johnson, who is in second season as DC. “He’s running around take reps at scout team quarterback. He could still play.”
But aside from his physical prowess, perhaps the thing that has most impressed Hottle has been gaming planning organization and smarts. It was Johnson, who convinced Hottle change from a 4-4 defense to the 3-4.
“I thought that took an incredible amount of courage for a young coach to come in, who’s never coordinated before, and tell me he’s got a better way. That was quite remarkable. We talked a long time about making the change. He believed in it and I believed in him. He’s instilled this mentally defensively this is what we’re going to do and this is who we’re going to be. Player-wise they’ve brought into it.”
Leading the way in the secondary is senior Austin Tennessee. The most decorated and athletically gifted of the unit still had to earn his way as a freshman after transferring in from Concord. Hottle looked over and saw Tennessee running with the fourth team defense. When he asked Johnson, what was going on, the young coach told him: “he’s got earn his way like anybody else.”
Since then he has earned various all-region and all-conference selections. This season he has moved from corner to strong safety to get him closer to the ball. He has three interceptions, two of which he has returned two for touchdowns and has 188 yards in returns.
“He’s an exceptional football player, tall, lean, just a kid that wants to compete,” Hottle said. “Nobody wants to throw at Austin and I don’t blame them.”
If Tennessee is the playmaker in the secondary, then free safety Billy Lewis in the glue that holds them together. He has equaled last season’s interception total with six and also returned one for a score.
“He’s the guy that makes everything go back there,” Hottle said of the senior who wants to coach in the future. “He’s the brains of the outfit for sure.
“After practice, he comes in and cuts up our film for us. How many players want to do that? He walks off the practice field, grabs a quick shower and he’s in here cutting film. A lot kids watch film, he really knows what’s going on.”
The overachiever of the group is corner Jimmy Lauer. After picking of five passes last season, the junior has four this season including a huge interception return for a score a few weeks ago against Delaware Valley that gave the Mustangs a two-score lead.
“When he first came in he was the type of guy that was not real big, not real fast, not real gifted, but tenacious, wanted to be good,” Hottle said.
The up and comer of the group is sophomore corner Dan Flowe. The coaches’ confidence in his ability allowed them to move Tennessee to safety.
“It put some pressure on him, but he’s been great,” Hottle said. “It’s funny to watch him. We’re starting to see some of the movement patterns and same behaviors that you see every day in Austin.
“You know he’s watching him. You know he’s working to emulate him. You know he wants to be that caliber of player. To watch a sophomore do those things is exciting for the future”
Freshman Zach May is starting to get some reps in the games too.
“He’s not there yet, but he’s smart and he’s strong and athletic. He’s going to be really good,” said Hottle. “Those five guys, there’s a chemistry between them. They’re all very unique personalities but on Saturday they’re dialed in. It’s been fun watch. We’re blessed with some exceptional kids on the back end of our defense.”
Games to watch
Hobart (7-1, 4-1 LL) at St Lawrence (8-0, 5-0 LL): It’s pretty simple for the Saints. Win and clinch the second consecutive Liberty League title and trip to the playoffs. Loss and have to face a tough WPI squad next week and hope for a Pool C (at large) bid. The Statesmen almost certainly have to win to capture the title. Hobart scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes last season to win 19-17. The winner came with just two seconds left. Hobart has five last-minute victories this season (and one last second loss). Is it crazy to expect this game to some down to the wire again this season?
Wesley (6-2, 6-1 NJAC) at Salisbury (7-1, 6-1 NJAC): The Route 13 Rivalry has playoff implications again this season. With a win, Wesley would seemly clinch with 2-6 William Paterson in their season finale. The Sea Gulls have a tougher road. They must beat the Wolverines and then Frostburg State (assuming the Bobcats can top Montclair State) next week. Salisbury beat Wesley 38-35 last season for their first time since 2004.
Alfred (8-0, 6-0 E8) at Utica (6-2, 4-2 E8): The Saxons escaped Brockport last week with 30-28 victory and it won’t be any easier this week against the Pioneers. They trailed 28-17 before scoring two second-half touchdowns. Utica has won two straight.
Lycoming (3-5, 2-5 MAC) at Delaware Valley (6-2, 5-2 MAC): The Warriors last three losses are by a total of eight points. Lycoming will need a win this week and next against Stevenson to avoid back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2007. Last season, they were able pull off an upset the Aggies and knock them from the MAC title with a late comeback. The Aggies will have to win Saturday and then beat Widener to have any hopes at a Pool C bid.