JACKSONVILLE — David Blackwell emerges from the video room adjacent to his office to greet a reporter. Paused on the Jacksonville State defensive coordinator’s screen is video of Eastern Kentucky’s 35-28 loss at Tennessee State last week.
He sees worries lurking in Eastern Kentucky’s offense, the Ohio Valley Conference leader in yards a game. Reminded that he presides over the defense yielding the fewest yards and points a game in the OVC, he presses pause once more.
The “work in progress” he cited a few weeks ago, the one with all the new starters? JSU’s defense has progressed, he says, but whoa.
“Statistically it looks good,” he said. “It’s just not clean. We still don’t think we’re playing really clean.”
Saturday’s game in Richmond, Ky., marks a good time for JSU’s defense to clean up imperfections. EKU (2-4, 1-2 OVC) averages a league-best 457.3 yards a game, which translates to 14th in FCS.
The Colonels rank fourth in the OVC in points a game (30.3), right behind JSU (32.2). JSU’s defense will have help from its offense Saturday, but JSU’s defense wants to show just how nasty it can be against a good offense.
“We’re going to see who the best one is,” JSU linebacker Joel McCandless said. “We’re really going to see who’s true this time. It’s going to be a good matchup.”
JSU (5-1, 2-0) can be quite nasty on defense. The Gamecocks give up the fewest yards a game in the OVC (264.3), good enough for third in FCS. They also lead the OVC and rank 20th in FCS at 21.0 points allowed a game.
JSU led the OVC in total defense last season, but the Gamecocks are yielding 36 fewer yards a game this year — despite losing key players such as Chris Landrum, Devaunte Sigler, Brandon Bender and Jermaine Hough.
JSU came into this season with new starters on all layers of the defense, including three out of four positions in the secondary. Statistically, however, the Gamecocks are better.
Measures of their nastiness on defense go beyond just yards and points allowed a game. JSU ranks second in FCS football in third-down-conversion percentage (.253) by opponents and fourth in sacks a game (3.83).
McCandless, one of JSU’s returning starters from a year ago, quickly points out that a lot of this year’s new starters were backups a year ago. They played in the system.
“I think our depth is better than it’s ever been, especially on defense,” JSU head coach John Grass said. “We’re a very deep unit, so we’re playing a lot of guys. We’re playing anywhere from 12 to 15 guys up front, D-line wise, so our D-line never gets tired, and all of those guys can play.”
Returning starters and promoted veterans also got better from last year to this year, McCandless said. He points to sam linebacker Siran Neal’s improved pass coverage and tackle Desmond Owino’s pass rushing.
“His pass rushing has been tremendous,” McCandless said. “A lot of pressure. Even Randy (Robinson) has been giving great pressure up front, our D-line as a whole.”
Then there’s linebacker Darius Jackson, the preseason pick for OVC defensive player of the year. He’s tied for eighth in FCS in sacks at 1.00 a game. He’s the defender opponents can’t seem to avoid.
“The ball just likes him for some reason,” McCandless said. “I don’t know what it is. Him and the ball have a thing going on.”
Still, task master Blackwell wants to keep his crew striving. For him, it’s about how good JSU’s defense can be.
“We’re giving up, in my mind, too many points, even though we’re leading the conference in scoring defense,” he said. “We have that one or two drives a game that you kind of shake your head, and you’re like, ‘Where did that come from?’
“Maybe expectations might be too high from my end, but we’re coming along. I don’t think we’re totally dominating. We talk about being a dominating defense, and I don’t think that we have totally dominated people.”
Saturday would be a good time for that dominating form to show.
EKU’s offense has changed little in scheme with a change of head coaches. The Colonels run spread concepts with more multiples in the running game, Blackwell said.
The Colonels also have standard talent.
“They’re explosive with big, tall receivers,” Blackwell said. “They do a good job of mixing run and pass. The quarterback is a really, really good player. They’ve got weapons, and they always have. EKU is one of the most talented teams in our conference every year, so they’ve got players.
“They’re big up front, big tight ends, so their team looks a lot like we do. They’re a big physical team that can throw the ball and run the ball.”