VALDOSTA -- Sitting in the press box at the University of West Alabama Saturday, two veteran sports writers had succumbed to the hype.
They came to see Dusty Bonner throw the football. They didn't come to see Aaron Jenkins run the football. And they certainly didn't think about watching Valdosta State's defense stuff the Tigers all day long.
"I didn't know their defense was that good," one writer said at day's end.
Lesson No. 1. The Blazers aren't all about throwing the football. That may mean the difference in VSU football program reaching new heights in the next seven weeks.
Defense wins championships, you say?
"We don't want to be in the limelight," said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, in his first year leading the defense after coaching the backs last season. "If we're in the limelight it's for a negative reason. We like creeping up on everybody."
Improving the defense was the coaching staff's top priority after the 2000 season. The Blazers were 10-2, but finished in the middle of most defensive categories in the Gulf South statistics. Worse, they gave up over 1,000 total yards in the two losses to Delta State.
The defense needed to get more physical, and that started with the line.
"The Delta State game made us realize that," said junior safety Ced Dickerson, the team's leading tackler (53). "The defensive line did what they could, but they were small. We thought we were one or two d-lineman away from beating Delta State."
Step one -- Recruiting. One of VSU's three December signees was tackle Dewayne Smith, a junior college transfer. He went through spring practice and is a starter at tackle.
Two more junior college linemen were signed in the spring. Fatari Lyons, an All-America linebacker at Middle Georgia, was moved to end. And Reggie Rhodes came from Georgia Military to become VSU's quarterback sack leader -- as a reserve.
"Sometimes junior college players have a bad rap," said Smart. "With coach Harbin and coach Hatcher's help, they've come in and worked as hard as anybody."
"Our defensive line is a big part of it," said fifth-year linebacker Reggie Cockerm (43 tackles, four for loss). "We have about seven or eight animals up there that make it easier for us."
Step two -- The coaches. Line coach Mike Pelton returned to Troy State and coordinator Will Muschamp left for Louisiana State. Smart, a former Bainbridge High quarterback who became a standout safety at Georgia, was promoted to coordinator. After one hire didn't pan out, the Blazers got Levorn Harbin from Auburn to coach the line. He played on North Alabama's last national championship team in 1995. Later, Danny O'Rourke moved over from Georgia Southern, where he had coached safeties for the I-AA national champion. O'Rourke played at West Georgia.
Smart, Harbin and O'Rourke are all in their mid-20s. What they lack in coaching experience they make up for with their enthusiasm.
"They have a lot of enthusiasm and love for the game," Smart said of the first-year coaches. "They have national championship experience. The kids see those rings and know they've been there before and they'll listen."
"Kirby was a very intelligent football player when he played," head coach Chris Hatcher said. When first hired, Hatcher had noted Smart had four interceptions off his Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch in two games.
"Kirby has kept it simple each and every week. They let the guys go out and play the game," Hatcher said.
"Levorn has brought a tough mental aspect and a great work ethic. Danny's got a great working relationship with the players. And they all haven't forgot what it's like to play the game."
Step three -- Build on experience. Of the seven starting backs and linebackers, six returned from last season. Smart chose not to reinvent the defense, but to continue the work Muschamp started last year.
"We believe more that we can do it," said Cockerm. "We've made up our mind that we want it. We want to stay unbeaten and win a national championship. Go all the way."
"A lot of them stayed here during the summer and wo
rked hard. They saw that the system worked," said Smart. "Repetition makes you faster. They do the same thing over and over. They're flying to the ball now."
Step four -- Build depth. Valdosta State has overcome some injuries (led by safety Shamonta Dean's broken foot) and two fall departures without missing a beat.
Some in-season moves have also paid off. Two-year safety Tabious Carter returned to linebacker, and leads the team with three interceptions. When Dean was hurt, Wesley Brown stepped in instead of Carter moving back and is now tied for fifth on the team in tackles (36).
Another sophomore, Marlin Adams, continues to confuse opponents whether at linebacker or end. He also has 36 tackles (eight for loss) with three quarterback sacks.
"Last year we had players playing 80 or 90 snaps," said Dickerson. "Now we're playing 40 to 45 and it's keeping us fresh. It's causing the other team more problems."
"We're as talented with our second team as our first team." said Smart. "When you have that, you have something special."
For example, starting middle linebacker Mike Fowler has 41 tackles. Reserve Jason Cost is next with 38 tackles.
Of VSU's 29 defensive regulars, 16 played last season. Two more came back after a year off. Lineman Willie Caldwell was a second-team all-Gulf South pick in 1999. Defensive back Shaunta Dismuke has blocked three punts this season.
Three other squad members -- including end Todd Ragle, who first came to Valdosta State in 1996 -- four other transfers and one true freshman have made it to the varsity.
Still, you could call the Blazer defense a no-name defense. No one from the unit has been named Gulf South Conference defensive player of the week. Why?
"We don't have a single great player on our defense," Smart said. "I tell them that as long as you don't care who gets the credit we'll be great."
"We don't mind not being the focus. So long as we win games and perform well," said Cockerm.
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