Defenses key for Salisbury, Kean

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Freshman linebacker Matt Clerk had one of Kean's five interceptions on Saturday, returning it for a touchdown.
Kean athletics photo

By Brian Hunsicker

Watching Kean’s defense take on Salisbury’s powerful triple option attack will surely be one of the drawing cards of the matchup between the teams Saturday. But for fans of defense, the Sea Gulls’ unit should offer some interesting viewing as well.

Both teams run a base 3-4, and both are coming off strong defensive performances in the first round of the NCAA tournament – albeit in different ways. Kean forced six turnovers, five by interception, in a 34-10 win over Christopher Newport; Salisbury, meanwhile, limited Western New England to 2.5 yards per rush in a 62-24 win over the Golden Bears.

Salisbury showed it has ability at each level. When Western New England tried to run, the Sea Gulls had linebackers in position to make a tackle just beyond the line of scrimmage. And when they weren’t able to, Salisbury’s aggressive safeties stepped in and rarely gave up yards after contact. When the Golden Bears’ quarterbacks tried to pass, they often had little time to do so; defensive ends Matt Leon and Nick Ochoa and nose Tommy Hawks were consistently able to collapse the pockets from all angles.

Leon said after the game that Salisbury had switched to a 3-4 in 2010, and the change has been beneficial. The players were better able to understand and execute their assignments.

“It was a drastic change,” Leon said. “Everybody has a specialized role.”

“Every play, you know your job,” inside linebacker Matt McMurdo, who returned a fumble 18 yards for Salisbury’s fourth touchdown, said. “It works the way it’s supposed to work.”

Kean has capitalized on putting the necessary pieces into place. Coach Dan Garrett’s philosophy on building a defense begins up front with a road-grading nose guard who can eat up space in the middle. Next is an athletic strongside outside linebacker who is equally adept at pass coverage or pass rush, followed by a quick-reacting inside linebacker who can plug holes against the run. Lastly, two sure-tackling safeties serve as the backstop.

Freshman defensive lineman Nick Ochoa made a big interception to seal Salisbury's win against Ithaca earlier in the season.
Salisbury athletics photo

But skill isn’t the only requirement; intelligence is too.

“You can’t always get the best players,” Garrett said, “but you need smart, intelligent players.”

This year, though, Kean has the benefit of having some very good players that also fit the system. Lineman Ray Wegrzynek (third on the team in tackles for loss), linebacker Bekim Bujari (the Cougars’ leading tackler) and safety Jamahl Williams (second on the team with five pass breakups) are all seniors and all were named first-team all-NJAC. Garrett credits each of them with playing a crucial role in the success of the Cougars’ defense.

They’ve also gotten a surprise benefit from freshman linebacker Mike Clerk. Garrett said Clerk was unable to showcase his athleticism early in the season as he was still learning the system. But, near the midpoint of the season, Clerk got a spot start and opened the coaches’ eyes. Since then, he’s been the NJAC’s defensive rookie of the week three consecutive times.

Given the skill on both sides, it seems neither team will be likely to produce as many points as in their respective playoff openers. There should be plenty, however, to keep defensive-minded fans happy.